Buck Postdoc Wins Coveted K-99 Grant Based on Studies Involving Women's Health and Aging

Michael Velarde, PhDOnly the most promising postdoctoral fellows are awarded highly competitive National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pathway-to-Independence grants, which provide federal funding for scientists to transition from being in a lab to running their own lab as a full-fledged faculty member. Michael Velarde, PhD, is one of those fellows now on a fast track to establish a career based on women’s health and aging.

Velarde, a member of the Campisi lab, studies the impact of estrogen on the aging process – uncharted territory in the larger field of aging research. "Women tend to live longer than men," said Velarde. "No one really understands the biology behind that phenomena, I think estrogen has something to do with it." Velarde says estrogen acts as a good-cop/bad cop in many tissues of the body – it’s known to be good for the brain and skin and it reduces the risk for colon cancer. But estrogen also increases the risk for ovarian cancer and heart disease. The Philippine native, who came to the Buck from the University of Arkansas, wants to bridge the gap between the normal physiological contribution of estrogen and the estrogen signaling that influences the aging process. He’s focusing on mitochondria and the skin to do it.

Mitochondria are the powerhouses of the cell involved in energy production and oxygen exchange. An accumulation of oxidative damage in the mitochondria is thought to contribute to age-related diseases. "Given that estrogen influences mitochondrial function in several cell types, I hypothesize that estrogen action during aging is linked to mitochondrial function," said Velarde who is using skin (from mice) as a model for his research. "Estrogen protects the skin from oxidative mitochondrial damage; it prevents signs of skin aging and promotes wound healing," he said. "But on the other hand mitochondrial oxidative damage during aging impairs estrogen signaling. I think this breakdown in estrogen signaling eventually culminates in age-related decline in skin function."

His goal: To discover potential drug targets that would prevent the harmful effects of impaired estrogen signaling in the skin and (eventually) in other tissues.

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