Goal is to spur novel research of high importance to understanding aging and its impact on diseases of aging
Charleen T. Chu, MD, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh and David M. Sabatini, MD, PhD, associate professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, received the 2009 Julie Martin Mid-Career Awards in Aging Research. Sponsored by The Ellison Medical Foundation, the grants provide funding of $550,000 to mid-career scientists whose research has great potential in advancing understanding of basic aging and its impact on age-related diseases. Through a partnership with the American Federation for Aging Research established in 2005, to date The Ellison Medical Foundation has disbursed $4.4 million to eight researchers.
In Parkinson's disease, dopaminergic neurons lose their ability to function and eventually die. Autophagy or "self-eating" is an important process by which damaged or unneeded structures in the cell are delivered to specialized compartments called lysosomes for digestion into building blocks that can be reused. The capacity for this recycling process, however, declines with age. Dr. Chu's research will develop methods to cause impairment of autophagy in adult mice to see if this factor contributes to the development of neurodegeneration on its own or in combination with genetic alterations that model familial parkinsonism. Dr. Chu's laboratory also studies the effects of overactivation of autophagy, which may also negatively alter neuritic and synaptic function. The ability to identify and correct age- or disease-related factors that disrupt the balance of autophagy could aid in the development of future therapies for neurological diseases.
The mammalian target of rapamycin (mTOR) signaling pathway is a key regulator of growth and metabolism in response to nutrients. mTOR signaling regulates protein synthesis, as well as cell size and proliferation, and has recently been linked to increased health and lifespan in a variety of organisms including yeast, worms, flies, and mice. Using mice with deletions of key mTOR genes, Dr. Sabatini seeks to learn more about the mechanisms underlying mTOR and its relationship to health and lifespan. The potential of such research is that one day this pathway may be able to be tweaked in people to provide some health benefits and protect against age-related diseases.
"These grants address two pressing needs: to sustain the promising work of mid-career researchers and to encourage less conservative approaches to advance research on aging that may be deemed too risky for other sources of funding," said Stephanie Lederman, executive director, American Federation for Aging Research. "We thank The Ellison Medical Foundation for their solid commitment to these scientists and the field."
"One of the great opportunities in a scientist's career is the point where he/she has recently achieved tenure status and can begin to take greater risks with less concern about career security," said Richard L. Sprott, executive director, The Ellison Medical Foundation. "We created this program in collaboration with AFAR in order to capitalize on the unique opportunities at this career stage by providing a funding source that encourages faster development of new ideas and approaches than is possible with more traditional funding."
Opportunities for scientists to exercise their imaginations and explore new directions are remarkably hard to find within today's research framework. Science itself is usually a painstakingly slow, deliberate, and expensive process. Research progress is hard to direct and even harder to predict. Progress is usually made by incremental advances in knowledge that build on current knowledge. The U.S. scientific infrastructure is generally geared to supporting the slow, steady march of progress. Investigators frequently have difficulty obtaining financial support through traditional sources to follow up novel ideas or observations that challenge current dogma. Yet these are the very creative opportunities that may foster a "quantum leap" or "paradigm shift" in scientific understanding, eventually contributing to advances in human health. The Ellison Medical Foundation's goal is to respond to that need, providing scientists with the resources, freedom, and flexibility to pursue high-risk research that could have a scientific impact worldwide. The Foundation expects that its programs will stimulate exciting innovative research that will improve lives and influence future discoveries.