The way to new innovative drugs is opened thanks to the discovery of a mechanism of defense of cells against damage that occurs during aging. The Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology of the Technology and Research Foundation (ITE), where the relevant research is carried out, is already in collaboration with pharmaceutical companies and laboratories abroad to translate the results of the research into innovative medicines to be used in humans, mainly for to prevent the onset of diseases associated with aging, in order to achieve a better quality of life in old age.

“Essentially our cells have the ability to repair themselves but this ability weakens over the years. So, little by little, as we age, our cells accumulate damage and these eventually appear as pathological conditions”, says the president of the Technology and Research Foundation (ITE), professor of the Medical School of the University of Crete and president of the European Institute of Innovation and of Technology (European Institute of Innovation and Technology, EIT) Nektarios Tavernarakis.

He points out that if the damage caused by aging concerns the nervous system, then the diseases are neurodegenerative such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, while if there are damage to the liver or pancreas, type 2 diabetes can occur. “All of these are pathological conditions associated with aging, but there are now very encouraging results in research to prevent or greatly postpone the onset of such diseases,” he adds.

Tips for inhibiting the aging mechanisms

Mr. Tavernarakis underlines that “what must ultimately be dealt with is the accumulation of damage” and emphasizes that what everyone should do as the years go by is not to encourage the creation of damage. In general, he notes that diet is an important factor as through it the body absorbs many toxins and harmful elements and recommends the adoption of the Mediterranean diet and the diet of the blue zones, which, he says, are areas such as Ikaria and Crete in Greece with high percentages of supercentenarians.

“It is also good to avoid exposure to aggravating factors such as smoking that creates very serious damage to the cells that do not have time to correct them, the intake of substances such as alcohol, excessive consumption of carbohydrates, air pollution, ultraviolet radiation, factors that they create serious damage to the cells” he comments. In addition, he states that very intense stress has been associated with aging, while moderate stress did not appear to be aggravating. At the same time, related publications point out that mental exercise and reading can act as retarding factors for the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

Precision medicine unit for neurodegenerative diseases

Regarding neurodegenerative diseases, the president of the Technology and Research Foundation (ITE) notes that a precision medicine unit has been created at the Foundation. “By analyzing the genetic material of the patient’s DNA, the doctor can understand what would be the most effective treatment, because this depends very much on the genes we have inherited from our parents. This, then, our heredity, we can know in all its length and breadth through this DNA analysis. We have already analyzed thousands of samples at the ITE unit and at other units operating in Thessaloniki and Athens. At the moment these analyzes are done free of charge, and whether they should be done or not is at the discretion of the doctor who can decide whether the test can be useful for the patient or not,” he says characteristically.

In this wavelength he emphasizes that already biology is an interdisciplinary field that works with other sciences such as informatics, computer science, physics and mathematics. After all, he believes that it is high time to recognize both the specialty of the biologist and the corresponding professional rights.

“One can do research with claims in Greece”

Regarding his personal career path and his presence in Greece today, Mr. Tavernarakis states: “I would say that I was very lucky because before I left for America, I had done my studies here in Greece, initially at the Aristotle University Thessaloniki where I studied Biology. Then I did my PhD in Crete, at the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology of the ITE, so I had the opportunity to see with my own eyes and up close that one can do ambitious research in Greece. When I left for America I saw that there were really few things missing here and that was the deciding factor for me to come back. I found that, here, in my home country, Crete, the Institute offered me a space to do my research that had nothing to envy from other research centers abroad.”

Regarding the researchers in Greece, he expresses the opinion that they have proven that there is the mood and the will for research and adds: “Here, in Greece, we can publish in the best journals, in journals that find it difficult to publish researchers from Harvard, in journals that they reject studies of Nobel Prize winners. However, we can submit publications to Nature, or Science, or Cell, or other top journals in the world. But we need the constant support and funding of the state in research so that it is not seen as an unnecessary luxury but as an investment for the future of the country”.

Forty years since the establishment of ITE

The Technology and Research Foundation (ITE) is celebrating this year its 40th anniversary since its establishment in 1983, it has to show off its ten Institutes and as Mr. Tavernarakis emphasizes, “at the present stage it is the largest research institution in the country, as it has surpassed in size even Democritus”. At the same time, in addition to being the largest, it is also the most competitive as, according to independent committees and international crisis committees, it emerges as the country’s leading research institution in all evaluations of the last 20 years. In the rankings of research centers by international organizations, ITE is ranked 130 worldwide among over 9,000 research centers around the world.

Speaking about his next steps, he underlines that the ITE wishes to maintain scientific excellence (so that it can be competitive and secure the funding it needs to operate) but also to utilize the research carried out for the benefit of society and the economy .

It should be noted that in addition to the 10 research institutes, the ITE also operates some special structures, such as the university publications of Crete (specializing in the university thesis), the free online course platform Mathesis (where one can attend high-level courses and get a certificate of attendance) , the Scientific and Technical Park of Crete (which is the incubator of ITE that houses start-ups and spin offs that wish to osmosis between research and entrepreneurship), and the Praxi network of ITE (a mediation and technology transfer office that provides intellectual property rights, patents and finding industry partners to develop new products and services).

Will we eventually become immortal?

To the question of whether we will eventually become immortal, Mr. Tavernarakis answers meaningfully: “the goal is not to make man immortal. Such a thing, after all, I don’t think is in the realm of the possible, at least for the next future that we can foresee. What is the main goal is to improve the quality of life, that is, to have an old age free from diseases, from misery from pathological conditions that accompany aging because our people also say it: oh, only old age comes. Aging is usually accompanied by very serious pathological conditions that afflict the patient himself, the aging person but also his family, his surroundings, society, health systems and here we are not talking about diseases for which we have effective treatments. Unfortunately, we do not have effective treatments or vaccines for Alzheimer’s disease, or treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and most aging-related diseases. Our ambition is not for man to live forever or two hundred and three hundred years, but to live what he lives well and without the diseases that accompany aging. That’s why we mainly study aging: to understand what is this connection between aging and pathological conditions and to break it, so that we have a better quality of life in old age.”