Buck Institute Adds Two New Faculty

Stem cell technologies will be utilized to study vision disorders and skeletal muscle physiology

September 27, 2011 Novato, CA   Deepak Lamba, PhD and Arvind Ramanathan, PhD have joined the Buck Institute as assistant professors.  Both new faculty members will be utilizing various stem cell technologies to pursue their research goals. Lamba will be identifying new methods to treat degenerative vision disorders.  Ramanathan will be studying the physiology of skeletal muscle to understand how it regenerates and responds to aging.

Lamba, who was most recently at the University of Washington in Seattle, is considered a pioneer among those developing efficient methods of making retinal cells from human embryonic stem cells.  He has been able to generate differentiated photoreceptors, the cells in the eye that respond to light, and has shown that the cells can be successfully transplanted into rodents.  In vision testing in these otherwise blind mice, the stem cell transplanted eyes are now responding to light.  “Now I need to determine if there will be any issues with tumor development in the new cells,” said  Lamba, “I also need to ascertain how long the transplanted cells survive.” Lamba’s research will be of particular interest to those suffering from age-related macular degeneration, a disease that destroys central vision and robs people of the ability to read and drive. He says photoreceptors are the key cells needed to treat the disease, which is the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 years and older. It is estimated that as many as 11 million people in the U.S. have some form of macular degeneration.

Lamba will also be utilizing induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS) in his research. An iPS cell is a cell taken from any tissue that has been genetically modified to behave like an embryonic stem cell. As the name implies, these cells are pluripotent, which means that they have the ability to form all adult cell types. Lamba will be using iPS technology to generate eye cells from skin cells in order to understand and develop treatments for glaucoma as well as other retinal degenerations.  Glaucoma is a group of eye diseases that often share common traits such as high eye pressure, damage to the optic nerve and gradual sight loss. “Glaucoma is a much more complicated disorder since it affects the ganglion cells which project from the eye to the brain,” said Lamba. “Transplantation would be much more difficult so I’ll be using iPS-technology to create cells that can be used to screen existing drugs in order to identify those that might be useful as a treatment.”

While Lamba is focused on eyes,  Ramanathan is using skeletal muscle tissue as a scientific “palette” to further his research into molecular physiology – the complex signaling that determines how an organism or its parts function. He’ll be using adult stem cells from muscle (adult stem cells are specialized cells that have the ability to regenerate their tissue of origin) and will utilize sophisticated mass spectrometric and imaging based approaches to address these questions: What are the molecular signals that integrate nutrients and impact tissue regeneration? And by what mechanisms does aging affect these molecular signals? How do cancer-causing mutations remodel cellular metabolism?  Ramanathan’s work is expected to inform the study of sarcopenia – the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle --  that is a hallmark of aging. People generally experience a 0.5 -1% loss in muscle mass and strength per year after the age of 25. “The objective is to comprehensively identify biological pathways and growth factor signals that could be exploited to reverse or slow this degenerative process,” said Ramanathan.

Ramanathan, who came to the Buck from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, is also embarking on a new inquiry that highlights the creative nature of science.  Since arriving at the Buck in April he’s become interested in xenobiotic stressors – the environmental toxins, including chemicals from plastics and pesticides and car fumes – asking how they affect physiology.  “Our stem cells are impacted by our environment,” said Ramanathan. “It’s an impact that doesn’t go away, and it gets inherited genetically and epigenetically. How does that affect aging? Is there a way we can reverse the damage?”

“I am excited to welcome both of these new faculty to the Buck,” said President and CEO Brian Kennedy, PhD. “They are well established in their respective fields and the fact that they are both utilizing stem cells fits perfectly into the Institute’s growth plan.” Kennedy says their work has great potential to improve healthspan. “Vision problems often spark a downward spiral in the health status of the elderly and function is almost entirely dependent on muscle strength. Their programs enrich our scope of aging research greatly."

About the Buck Institute for Research on Aging
The Buck Institute is the first freestanding institute in the United States that is devoted solely to basic research on aging and age-associated disease. The Institute is an independent nonprofit organization dedicated to extending the healthspan, the healthy years of each individual’s life. Buck Institute scientists work in an innovative, interdisciplinary setting to understand the mechanisms of aging and to discover new ways of detecting, preventing and treating conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, macular degeneration and stroke.  For more information: www.thebuck.org.

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