October 7, 2009

Salk Scientist Wins 2009 Aging Research Award from the Ellison Medical Foundation

Salk News

Salk Scientist Wins 2009 Aging Research Award from the Ellison Medical Foundation

La Jolla, CA—Dr. Martin Hetzer, Hearst Endowment associate professor in the Salk Institute’s Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, has received a 2009 Senior Scholar Award in Aging from the Ellison Medical Foundation. He will receive $150,000 a year for four years to study the mechanisms at work in nuclear pore complexes, channels that mediate molecular traffic between the nucleus and cytoplasm of cells.

The Ellison Medical Foundation Senior Scholar Program in Aging supports established investigators at U.S. institutions who conduct research in the basic biological sciences relevant to understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities. In particular, the foundation seeks to stimulate new research that has rigorous scientific foundations but may not be currently funded adequately because of its perceived novelty or high risk, or because it is from an area where traditional research absorbs the majority of funding. The Senior Scholar Award in Aging is intended to allow the development of new, creative research programs by investigators who may not currently be conducting aging research or who may wish to develop new research programs in the field.

Changes in gene activity are part of the cellular aging process; however, the mechanisms that cause age-related alterations in gene expression are poorly understood. Hetzer has recently discovered that nuclear pore complexes, essential channels that shuttle molecules across the nuclear membrane, are extremely long-lived in non-dividing cells and deteriorate over time, causing cytoplasmic proteins to “leak” into the nucleus in neurons. Because most of the cells in our bodies are non-dividing, he hypothesizes that this deterioration might be a general aging mechanism leading to age-related defects in nuclear function, such as the loss of youthful gene expression programs. His lab has observed filaments of the cytoplasmic protein tubulin inside the nuclei of old mouse and rat neurons, for example, a phenomenon that has been linked to various neurological disorders, including Parkinson’s disease. Based on this finding, he speculates that the deterioration of nuclear pore complexes over time might initiate or contribute to the onset of certain neurodegenerative diseases.

Hetzer will use the Ellison funding to investigate the molecular mechanisms that lead to the observed damage and loss of the proteins that make up the nuclear pore complexes. He also plans to study the physiological consequences of leaky nuclei for cell function and to analyze the consequences of defective nuclear pore complexes in gene expression.

About Martin Hetzer
A member of the Salk faculty since 2004, Martin Hetzer earned his Ph.D. from the Vienna Biocenter in Austria and completed his postdoctoral studies at the EMBL, in Heidelberg, Germany. He concentrates his research on the dynamic behavior of the cell nucleus during cell division and differentiation, particularly how the organization and architecture of the nucleus influences gene activity and how disruption of three-dimensional order can cause developmental defects, cancer, and premature aging. Most recently, he has been the recipient of an Early Career Life Science Award from the American Society of Cell Biology and was named an American Cancer Society Research Scholar.

About the Ellison Medical Foundation
The Ellison Medical Foundation, established by Oracle Software founder and CEO Lawrence J. Ellison in collaboration with the late Nobel Prize-winning biologist Joshua Lederberg, supports basic biomedical research on aging relevant to understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities. The foundation, which made its first awards in 1998, particularly wishes to stimulate new, creative research that might not be funded by traditional sources or that is often under-funded in the United States. It fosters research by means of grants-in-aid on behalf of investigators to universities and laboratories within the United States. http://www.ellisonfoundation.org/index.jsp

About the Salk Institute for Biological Studies:
The Salk Institute for Biological Studies is one of the world’s preeminent basic research institutions, where internationally renowned faculty probes fundamental life science questions in a unique, collaborative, and creative environment. Focused both on discovery and on mentoring future generations of researchers, Salk scientists make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of cancer, aging, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and cardiovascular disorders by studying neuroscience, genetics, cell and plant biology, and related disciplines. Faculty achievements have been recognized with numerous honors, including Nobel Prizes and memberships in the National Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1960 by polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk, M.D., the Institute is an independent nonprofit organization and architectural landmark.

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