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Exploration: The Buck Institute for Research on Aging

Author: Judith M. Wilson
June, 2014 Issue

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"It is important to be looking for cures to medical disorders, but it is equally important to conduct research on human health and well-being." —Stephen LaBerge

 

Located high on a grassy hillside on Mt. Burdell in north Novato, with cattle grazing below, the Buck Institute for Research on Aging is a world of contrasts. The campus, designed by renowned architect I.M. Pei, is a masterpiece of curves, sharp geometric angles and tall spaces that let in the light and make the most of the rustic site and its spectacular views. High-tech research flourishes quietly alongside wildflowers, and the tranquil environment barely hints at the exciting and dynamic work that goes on inside, as scientists seek to unravel the mysteries of aging and find ways for us to live longer while enjoying good health.
 
The secrets to healthy aging are elusive. Everybody ages; it’s how we do it that matters, and finding improved ways to grow older can bring untold benefits, both physical and economic. Research into aging was a new field when the Buck Institute opened in 1999. Studying how aging enables disease was so new that it didn’t even have a name, leading the institute’s scientists to coin the term “geroscience” to identify the concept. Fifteen years later, its work to develop new methods and strategies for increasing longevity in a positive way is both groundbreaking and promising, as the results of early research move into the next stage and clinical trials take research from lab to bedside with the goal of creating a better future.
 

Putting the brakes on disease

The philosophy behind aging research is a departure from current thinking. Dr. Brian Kennedy, Buck Institute president/CEO as well as a research biologist, observes that the approach we take to increasing longevity now doesn’t work well. “We don’t do health care. We do sick care,” he says, pointing out that we wait until we get sick, and then doctors try to fix the problem. “That’s a really big challenge,” he says, observing that, by the time someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 70 or 80 percent of the neurons are gone, so the damage is done. “The real way to win this battle is to keep you healthy in the first place,” he says.
 
“We’re in a world of chronic diseases now,” he continues, pointing out that most of the developed world is afflicted with ailments such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. “They’re all age-related diseases,” he observes. “By understanding the pathways, we can go in and manipulate the aging process,” he says, explaining that when researchers can slow aging in mice, as they’re succeeding in doing at the Buck Institute, they’re on the path to slowing diseases in humans and preventing the one thing the diseases all have in common—aging. Thus, what the research is trying to accomplish is a longer period of health span, not just age span. “It’s going to be easier to keep you healthy than put you back together after you’re broken,” he says.
 
Initially, the institute had five faculty members doing basic research. Today, approximately 140 researchers from all over the world are working in 22 faculty-led labs in a variety of areas. Kennedy, for example, is focusing on a molecular pathway (the TOR pathway) that’s affected by the drug Rapamycin, which extends both lifespan and health span in mice. In humans, Rapamycin has side effects, so one of the goals of Kennedy’s research is to find out how it can do the good things without the side effects. “We’re trying to modify this drug based on the pathway it targets,” he says.
 
Meanwhile, Julie Mangada, a researcher with a doctorate in molecular medicine, also works with mice, but does stem cell research (she also coordinates Buck’s K-12 educational programs). “Virtually every tissue in our body has stem cells,” she says, but the ability of cells to regenerate diminishes as we get older. “The goal is to make the cells peppy again,” she explains. She describes BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) as “MiracleGro for the brain,” and explains it’s a protein the brain secretes when we exercise. Studies show that exercising for at least 30 minutes a minimum of three times per week causes cells to generate, making regular activity beneficial. “The bottom line is, we use it or we lose it,” she says.
 
Mangada’s main area of interest is Parkinson’s Disease. She explains that sufferers of the disease lose dopamine-producing cells in the mid-brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that’s involved in motor control. She grew dopamine-producing neurons from embryonic stem cells; when she transplanted them into the brains of mice afflicted with Parkinson’s, she discovered that, over a three-month period, they grew neuronal cells from the transplanted cells, and the new cells stayed in the mid-brain, counteracting tremors. She’s optimistic about the results, but notes that, although the treatment relieved the symptoms, researchers still must determine what causes cell loss in the first place. “We need to figure out what causes the disease. We need to figure out what fixes it,” she says, and explains that the Buck Institute takes a multi-pronged approach to problems and looks at them from different angles to do just that.
 
Among the inhabitants of her lab are water bears, intriguing creatures so tiny they’re visible to the human eye only with the aid of a microscope. They’re both primitive and complex, and yet they just might hold some of the clues to the secrets of healthy aging. Eight-legged, water-dwelling tardigrades with a maximum body length of only 1.5 mm, water bears have a reputation in the science community for being one of the world’s toughest animals. “If you want to go water bear hunting, they’re everywhere,” says Mangada. They’re on mountaintops and tree trunks, in oceans and ponds; they’ve even been to outer space and are one of the few organisms that can survive there, despite being blasted with massive doses of radiation. “They can’t get cancer,” says Mangada, so finding out how and why they stay healthy would be a huge breakthrough. “It has the potential to change the way medicine is practiced,” she observes.
 

Following uncharted paths

Drive, creativity and opportunism are all elements of effective research. “When we do experiments, if I look back and trace how we got to that point, there’s a great deal of serendipity. If you chase unexpected results, it takes you to areas you haven’t been to, and that’s where the big discoveries are made,” says Kennedy. He explains that a project doesn’t usually have a clear start and end. Rather, scientists do research, make discoveries and go down new paths. They’re focused on goals, but at the same time, they’re cognizant of how science works. “You have to expect the unexpected, and when that happens, you look for new ideas to emerge and pursue them,” he says.
 
The Buck Institute draws researchers who care about the issues and are experts in specific areas, and they include medical doctors as well as scientists with doctoral degrees. “We’re really looking for people with the best ideas and the best science. You get the best minds together and you achieve big things,” Kennedy observes. “I’m very much into collaborative science,” he adds. Traditionally, scientists have often worked in isolation, sometimes competing to be the first to reach a milestone. In contrast, the Buck Institute was designed to be collaborative from the outset, with scientists from different disciplines encouraged to tackle common questions: What is aging and how does it impact disease? Large common areas encourage interaction and labs are designed to facilitate the free flow of ideas.
 

Looking forward

Learning is at the heart of the curiosity that drives research, and education to train the next generation of scientists is a natural extension of the core work in the labs. A wide range of programs includes Summer Scholars, which lets high school and college students experience science in action. “We really open their eyes to what research is,” says Kennedy. It gets some people excited, but it also shows them the realities of research. “It’s a tough field to be in,” he adds.
 
This fall, the institute welcomes the first class in a Ph.D. program in the biology of aging in partnership with the UC Davis School of Gerontology, and students in a master’s program in molecular biology at Dominican University of California in San Rafael also spend time at the institute, putting the knowledge they’ve acquired to use in a hands-on setting. Even young kids on school field trips visit the Buck, going on journeys of scientific exploration designed to give them an opportunity to make new discoveries and have fun with science.
 
In 2013, thanks to funding from trustee Larry Rosenberger and his wife, Diane, the Buck Institute Learning Center opened, with narrowing the achievement gap in science education as one of its goals. With four seminars per year and numerous public programs among its offerings, it provides new opportunities for visitors young and old to visit and learn about the Buck Institute’s research and how it can benefit them. Past events include the Longevity Kitchen: Let Science Be Your Sous Chef, an event that gave guests a chance to find out how healthy eating plays a role in healthy aging at a panel discussion and food tasting, and seminars on a variety of topics such as caloric restriction, osteoporosis and stress. The Buck Institute is also involved in the Bay Area Science Festival, a weeklong celebration that takes place each fall in the Bay Area. Buck Institute coordinates North Bay Discovery Day, which took place at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds in Santa Rosa October 26, 2013.
 
When the Buck Institute opened 15 years ago, little was known about aging. “Our role has been defining what aging is and intervening,” says Kennedy. “Now we’re at the exciting time when we’re at a transition point in helping people live longer, productive lives. We’re going to see some of this knowledge we’ve acquired being put to good use,” he says.
 
The Buck Institute is defining the future and has the potential to change the way we live. No doubt, Beryl Buck would be pleased. It’s also likely she’d be very surprised at how far her gift has gone, benefiting people not just in Marin County, but around the world.
 

Passion

Mary McEachron, chief administrative officer of the Buck Institute and general counsel, worked with John Elliot Cook, Beryl Buck’s attorney and executor of her estate, to establish a center for research into aging—and believes so strongly in the mission of the Buck Institute that she continues to be involved. “Imagine a universe in which the last third of a long life need not be marred by the diseases, disabilities and decrements of age,” she says. “How differently we would experience that lifetime, with its tectonic shift in quality of living and economic vitality. This is not only the world the Buck Institute envisions, it will one day be the world we’ve helped create.”
 

Commitment

M. Arthur Gensler Jr., FAIA, founder of Gensler, a global architecture, design, planning and strategic consulting firm, has served on the Board of Trustees for 11 years and considers it an honor. He and wife, Drue, who served on the first Buck advisory committee, are philanthropists who’ve donated more than $7 million to the Buck Institute and, in gratitude, the Buck Institute named the administrative building after them.
 
“It’s incredibly important to the whole world,” he says of the Buck Institute’s work. “We lack an understanding of aging. The unfortunate illnesses that aging causes are a terrible way to end your life. We have to extend the quality and go peacefully to what’s next.”
 
Gensler admires architect I.M. Pei’s work and says, “It’s a wonderful building. It attracts great researchers. He’s created a wonderful facility and a great master plan. It’s a beautiful site and a great place to do research.”
 

Hope

Barbara Morrison, president/CEO of TMC Financing and the founder and president of Working Solutions, is the vice chair of the Buck Institute Advisory Council and a member of the Board of Trustees.
 
“The Buck Institute is a very exciting place—world class research into an issue with profound implications for the future of the entire world,” she says. “This future is foreseeable; the oncoming ‘silver tsunami’ will engulf the economy of every nation unless we achieve significant progress toward healthy aging. The United States alone already spends more than $250 billion annually caring for stroke, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s victims. These are just three of many age-related disorders. And the peak in cost of care is still ahead.
 
“I joined the board four years ago because I believe that supporting the work of the Buck scientists is an investment in our children’s future.”
 

Vision

An apt quote from Beryl Hamilton Buck’s will is placed prominently on the wall in the lobby of the Buck Institute’s Arthur and Drue Gensler building: “I want to extend help towards the problems of the aged.” When she died in 1975, Mrs. Buck, a widow with no children, left a relatively small fortune to be used for the benefit of Marin’s needy, including the aged. A significant amount of her estate was stock in Belford Oil, and when Shell Oil purchased the company, after her will had gone through probate, the value of her estate ballooned from $7.6 million to $260 million.
 
The San Francisco Foundation was responsible for distributing the Buck funds and attempted to overturn the will so it could share the funds with other Bay Area counties. With big dollars at stake, a legendary legal fight followed. A court settlement in 1986 upheld the will, which led to the creation of the Marin Community Foundation and the decision to select three major projects.
 
Advocates spent a year enlisting support for a center for research into aging and, in 1987, Marin Superior Court approved the creation of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, the mission of which would be to find ways to extend the healthy years of life. It designated 15 percent of the annual proceeds from Beryl Buck’s estate to the institute in perpetuity.
 

Challenge

The Buck Institute’s budget is $38 million per year, and it gets funding from grants, corporate sponsors and individual donations, as well as a fixed amount from the Buck Trust. It depends on significant funding from the National Institutes of Health, but last year, as a result of major cutbacks in government spending, it saw a drop of $2 million, which has an inevitable impact on research.
 
“We’re in the process of destroying our research capability,” says Dr. Brian Kennedy. He believes that the American heath care system, even for people who can get access, is poor and notes that we do very little preventive medicine. He cites Japan as a country that both takes preventive measures and makes health care accessible to everyone and, as a result, people live four or five years longer. “Other countries do a better job of keeping people from getting sick,” he says.
 
“We’re watching Medicare costs go through the roof. The economy is going to break,” he says. “If we increase funding into research, we might be able to decrease the costs. That’s a great investment.”


 

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