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Glenn Center Scholars Program Opens Door to Sharing of Ideas

-Jens Bruning

Although they both conduct research on the insulin signaling pathway and its implications in disease, Jens Bruning says he had only met Salk scientist Andy Dillin once in his career. They may have shared a couple of e-mail exchanges a few years ago, but that was the extent of their communication.

Yet that didn't keep the German investigator from contacting Dillin in early 2009 to ask if he could work in his lab and collaborate at Salk. "I was awarded a grant to study aging and age-related diseases as part of the German government's new initiative to promote more focused research rather than the traditional broad approach," says Bruning, who conducts research at the Institute for Genetics at the University of Cologne. "So I decided to contact Andy, who is well known for his work in this area."

The initial exchange eventually led to an invitation for a stint in the Dillin lab, where Bruning has been getting hands-on experience since August working with the C. elegans worm, a model organism in which Dillin demonstrated the mechanisms behind aging and its connection to Alzheimer's disease in 2006.

Dillin was able to extend the invitation through the visiting scholars program of the Glenn Center for Aging Research, which was established in January 2009 with a $5 million gift to the Institute by the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research.

Bruning became interested in basic research after receiving his medical degree and trained in endocrinology. His focus on diabetes led to postdoctoral studies at Boston's Joslin Diabetes Center. The experience solidified his decision to go into research.

A classically trained geneticist who until recently only worked with mouse models on diabetes research, Bruning says the C. elegans roundworm not only provides new opportunities for expanding his research but may also compliment his work in mice.

"The ease of genetic manipulation (in C. elegans) and its short lifespan really is a charm to find quick answers and to use it as a screening organism to then translate findings into higher model organisms such as mice," Bruning says.

"This experience is really giving me the opportunity to have stimulating discussions with other great (Salk) scientists like Marc Montminy to learn something completely new and develop new contacts. I think all of these things combined make this a really terrific program," he says.

The discussions and exchange of ideas is mutually beneficial, Bruning says. While Dillin offers suggestions on cellular pathways to investigate for potential new links in C. elegans, Bruning says he's sharing information on new mouse models his group has developed, which are of interest to Dillin as he expands his lab's repertoire of model organisms.

"The beauty of the scholars program is that it perpetuates the scientific process," says Dillin, director of the Glenn Center for Research Aging and an associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory. "It provides the opportunity for leading scientists like Jens to learn new techniques which he can take back to his lab, and we get new perspective from ideas he brings."

Bruning agrees: "The environment in the lab is outstandingly welcoming and open to discussions. I think this is also a reflection of the philosophy at Salk."