Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore

The role of diet in ageing - issue#1

Professor Ajmone’s research team studies diet components and metabolic mechanisms



The DAMA (Diet and Animal Model of Ageing) project counts on socio-economical, molecular, microbiological and modeling studies to highlight the role of the alimentary choices in healthy ageing

Prof. Paolo Ajmone Marsan  sees interdisciplinarity as something more than a standard practice. Pronutrigen, the Nutrigenomics and Proteomics Research Center, was founded in 2008 as a result of a donation by Invernizzi Foundation, and expanded in 2013 after the acquisition of equipment for proteomic and metabolomic analyses. It gathers different fields of research, such as animal production and physiology, plant production and defense, genetics and genomics, microbiology, environmental and food technology. As he explained, for him and his team the research project DAMA (Diet and animal model of aging) represented a further step towards interdisciplinarity, since the project itself opened up some collaborations with the colleagues operating in the socioeconomic field based in Piacenza, those active in the biomedical area based in Rome, and the mathematicians based in Brescia.

The project aims at examining the role of diet in the frame of ageing and it will count on socio-economical, molecular, microbiological and modeling studies, which are to be developed onto several simultaneous research lines.


1.      Bioethics and socioeconomics

Our research line is conceived in association with the Department of Public Health and the Institute of Bioethics  based in Rome" explained Daniele Moro, who is associate professor at the Department of Agricultural Economics in Piacenza. We want to analyze the food choices operated by elderly people in order to find out what their influence on heath is.Thanks to a detailed survey administered to 280 elderly subjects, the project will highlight the criteria determining the alimentary choices of the individuals within the sample. The idea is to frame the correlation among economical, ethical, bio-juridical and sociocultural causes, life styles, health, nutrition and cognitive conditions, diet quality and the risk of unsafe alimentation. The ultimate aim is thus to sketch a map able to underscore the critical aspects connected to food habits. This would allow tracing educational initiatives for elderly and care-givers (practitioners, in-home nurses) that could work at precautionary and protection actions".


2.      Animal as ageing model-system

According to Franco Lucchini, research fellow at the Institute of Microbiology in Piacenza, within the second research line the project focus shifts in perspective from macro to micro. The project takes into consideration cells and molecules "to study the effects of specific diet components on the complex process of ageing". In particular, DAMA examines the changes occurring within the mitochondrion of cells, which represents the center of metabolic mechanisms, and causes many of the degenerative diseases affecting elderly people. Lucchini works on mice whose DNA is genetically identical and that are fed according to a basic diet designed for lab animals that is very similar to that of man. The researchers add to such diet some specific components and monitor their effects; more specifically, in this phase they are observing the effects of two derivatives of CLA – one is of animal origin, the other is synthetic – that are used in some dietary supplement, which are already available on the market. "The aim", Lucchini pointed out, "is to verify if the introduction of such substances accelerates or delays the insurgence of ageing signs in these mice in comparison to a group receiving a control diet with no CLA ".

A second experiment is conducted on swines. Erminio Trevisi, who is research fellow at theInstitute of Zootechnics at Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore in Piacenza, explained that the interactions between diet and ageing are verified using animals as a model-system for man. More specifically, the researchers study the interactions between extracts and homogenates of natural substances (i.e. aloe), and the immune and metabolic adaptation of the host animal. The objective is therefore to verify if the introduction of a certain food component creates some advantages, in particular as far as the modulation of the inflammatory reaction is concerned.

The swine-model is also used to study the effect of sugars, which are more resistant to intestinal fermentation, stated Filippo Rossi – research fellow at the Institute of Food and Nutrition Sciences. This research aims at verifying whether introducing in the diet a kind of starch that is more resistant to digestion may have any advantage. This would especially contribute in preventing some diseases that are typical of ageing, such as diabetes, which is now increasing among youngsters as well.

"Thanks to new technologies", concluded prof. Ajmone Marsan, "the degree of in-depth analysis that it is now possible to achieve is very high: we could move onto the level of genes and proteins expression, so to understand in molecular terms what the effects of specific diet components on metabolism are". During the research experiments the microbe flora of the digesting system will also be studied in order to trace the complex relationships connecting diet, microorganisms and animals. In this field, the project features a collaboration with the mathematicians based in Brescia, who are experts in modeling complex systems.

The ultimate aim is ambitious, namely to build a model, which would be replicable and therefore that could be used to study different nutritional components. The objectives of the research also include the production of scientific publications able to lay the foundations of the development of dietary supplements that would be scientifically valid, improving not only the physical and psychical health, but also elderlies' active life.

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Ajmone Marsan Paolo Institute of Zootechnics (Piacenza) Full professor
Bomba Lorenzo Institute of Zootechnics (Piacenza) post-doctoral fellow
Callegari Marisa Institute of Microbiology (Piacenza/Cremona) research fellow
Giuberti Gianluca Institute of Food and Nutrition Sciences(Piacenza) post-doctoral fellow
Laurenti Patrizia Department of Public Health (Rome) Associate professor
Lucchini Franco Institute of Microbiology (Piacenza/Cremona) research fellow
Dilda Francesca Institute of Microbiology (Piacenza/Cremona) post-doctoral fellow
Lucini Luigi  Institute of Agricultural and Environmental Chemistry (Piacenza) research fellow
Minuti Andrea Institute of Zootechnics (Piacenza) post-doctoral fellow
Moro Daniele  Department of Agricultural Economics (Piacenza/Cremona) Associate professor
Paolini Maurizio Department of Mathematics and Physics Nicolò Tartaglia (Brescia) Full professor
Pasquarelli Franco  Department of Mathematics and Physics Nicolò Tartaglia (Brescia) research fellow
Patrone Vania  Institute of Microbiology (Piacenza/Cremona) post-doctoral fellow
Prandini Aldo   Institute of Food and Nutrition Sciences (Piacenza) Associate professor
Rossi Filippo  Institute of Food and Nutrition Sciences (Piacenza) research fellow
Sacchini Dario Institute of Bioethics (Rome) research fellow
Sckokai Paolo  Department of Agricultural Economics (Piacenza/Cremona) Associate professor
Tessera Daniele Department of Mathematics and Physics Nicolò Tartaglia (Brescia) Associate professor
Trevisi Erminio Institute of Zootechnics (Piacenza) research fellow