Maria Mihaylova, PhD, selected for Pew Scholars Program to advance knowledge of metabolism and diet’s effect on aging intestinal cells

Maria Mihaylova, PhDThe mammalian gastrointestinal tract coordinates important tasks that facilitate food digestion and nutrient absorption with the help of trillions of microbes. This provides a rich environment to study whether or not proteins, which are responsible for transport of nutrients to cells, are negatively impacted by age or if it is the misfiring of signals to these proteins that affect the uptake of nutrients.

Microbes that live in the gastrointestinal tract coexist with the human host to accomplish important tasks necessary to maintain life including nutrient digestion that facilities absorption. 

New research by Maria Mihaylova, PhD, assistant professor of Biological Chemistry and Pharmacology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, aims to uncover how factors such as age and diet can alter nutrient transport by intestinal cells and lead to the development of metabolic and intestinal disturbances in the elderly. 

The work of Dr. Mihaylova and researchers in her laboratory to identify how changes in intestinal stem and progenitor cells can lead to digestive issues, including an altered ability to absorb nutrients, is very forward thinking. Her lab will employ advanced methods in gene expression analysis, metabolomics, biochemistry and bioinformatics to track age-related changes in nutrient transporters across the intestine. 

Dr. Mihaylova is among twenty-one early-career scientists selected for the Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences and will receive four years of funding to determine if these changes contribute to metabolic and digestive issues common in the elderly population. 

“We are building analytical tools as well as culture systems that better mimic the intestinal architecture and environment,” Dr. Mihaylova says. “This will allow us to examine cells on a cell-by-cell basis to identify new biology that may explain age-associated pathologies.”

The gut contains non-dividing mature cells, as well as stem cells which are in a state of constant division and cell replacement to replace the gut lining four to five days. Yet, as we age these rejuvenating stem cells begin to lose function and the ability to proliferate as they once did, which may contribute to altered expression of nutrient transporters within them. 

“Because some of these changes can be influenced by nutrient abundance, we will also explore the role diet plays on the efficiency of nutrient absorption in aging cells,” Dr. Mihaylova says. “This work could lead to new strategies for slowing or reversing the age-related decline in intestinal function, boosting metabolic health and facilitating tissue repair.”

The ability to conduct single cell analysis will allow researchers to better understand how specilazied cells develop, what can go wrong over the course of that development and offer clues to improve cellular function or even interupt the aging process to ensure more functional tissies remains in the body over time.

“Insight into how these cells repair after an infection or cancer diagosis and treatment could lead to incorporating dietary strategies in managing disease,” Dr. Mihaylova says. 

Dr. Mihaylova looks forward to continued collaboration with Ohio State colleagues and ones at other institutions, including scientists through the Pew Scholarship Program. Their ability to work together to develop pipelines and technologies to examine other cells and tissues could accelerate innovation and discovery. 

Dr. Mihaylova says that interacting with scientists from various disciplines has been integral to the success of her laboratory and research. 

“Scientists from diverse backgrounds learn from each other,” Dr. Mihaylova says.” This leads to collaboration to develop innovative technologies and the sharing and launching of more interdisciplinary and exciting projects.”

Dr. Mihaylova says that interacting with scientists from various disciplines has been integral to the success of her laboratory and research. One such opportunity arose when she was selected as the second recipient of Ohio State’s Block Lectureship Junior Faculty Award, where she was mentored by the 2019 Block Memorial Lectureship awardee – Elaine Fuchs, PhD, a preeminent cancer scientist at The Rockefeller University in New York City.

Dr. Mihaylova is the second Ohio State researcher selected for The Pew Scholars Program in the Biomedical Sciences since 1985. Gustavo Leone, PhD, was selected in 2001.