Victoria Lunyak, PhD, Joins Buck Faculty

Appointment establishes program in epigenetics and aging

April 21, 2008 Victoria Lunyak, PhD, has joined the faculty at the Buck Institute for Age Research. Lunyak, known for groundbreaking research that established a role for so-called “junk” DNA, will establish a program in epigenetics and aging at the institute.

Epigenetics is the study of heritable changes in genome function that occur without a change in DNA sequence.  The genome is the body’s genetic material, DNA is a nucleic acid that contains the instructions, or “blueprints” used in the development of all living organisms. Epigenetics includes the study of how patterns of gene expression are passed from one cell to its descendants, how gene expression changes during the differentiation of one cell type into another, and how environmental factors can change the way genes are expressed. Epigenetics explains how identical twins become distinct as they age.  There are far-reaching implications of epigenetic research for agriculture and for human biology and disease, including the understanding of stem cells, cancer and aging.

Lunyak, most recently an Assistant Research Scientist in the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Diego, was lead author of several studies that describe the role of epigenetics in neurobiology, organ development and in regulation of signal-dependent transcriptional response. Her recent discovery appearing in Science in July, 2007 suggests a function for “junk” DNA – the 96 percent of the human genome that doesn’t encode for proteins. “Junk” DNA was previously thought to have no useful purpose; however, Lunyak’s research discovered that some of the “junk” DNA was important in the formation of chromosomal boundaries that act as “epigenetic punctuation marks” – commas and periods that help orchestrate waves of transcriptional programs in the coding portion of the genome.  Lunyak’s future plans in epigenetics research involves the study of how lifestyle and environment can change the way genes are expressed in a single lifetime and in succeeding generations.

“We are very pleased to welcome Victoria Lunyak to the Buck Institute,” said David Greenberg, MD, PhD, Vice President of Special Research at the Buck Institute. “Epigenetic changes can be acquired during life, but can also be inherited, and appear to be important in the aging process, in certain diseases of aging, and in stem cell development.  Dr. Lunyak will be an invaluable addition to the Institute’s research program in each of these areas,” Greenberg said.

“The Buck Institute is the perfect place for me to continue my own research in epigenetics and to collaborate with other laboratories that are studying the aging process and chronic disease,” said Lunyak, who says one of her goals is to use epigenetics to identify biomarkers for normal development and disease processes. Those discoveries could lead to identification of novel therapeutic targets, and the development of protocols for the regeneration or repair of tissues and organs.  “I am very impressed with the caliber of research underway at the Buck, I am very excited to lend my expertise to efforts to extend the healthy years of life,” Lunyak said.

Lunyak received her PhD in Molecular Biology from the St. Petersburg Nuclear Physics Institute, Russian Academy of Science in St. Petersburg, Russia.  In addition to her position at the UCSD Department of Medicine, she has also held posts in the lab of MG Rosenfeld, a principle investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in La Jolla, CA, and in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Brown University in Providence, RI.

About the Buck Institute:
The Buck Institute is the only 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. The National Institute of Aging designated the Buck a “Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Biology of Aging,” one of just five centers in the country. 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 and stroke. Collaborative research at the Institute is supported by new developments in genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics technology.

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