Yeast Researcher Joins Buck Institute

All major genetic models now in place for studies of aging

February 2, 2005 Robert Hughes, PhD, has joined the faculty of the Buck Institute for Age Research. His laboratory will be studying aging and neurodegenerative diseases using the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Hughes’ arrival brings all four major genetic models used in aging research under one roof at the Buck Institute. In addition to yeast, the other models include the nematode worm C. elegans, the fruit fly and the mouse.

While it may seem like a huge leap from yeast to humans, there are significant advantages to using the single-celled organism as an entry point for the study of aging. Yeast are simple organisms; their activities can be easily and quickly tracked, and the basic biochemical processes are remarkably similar to those of many species, including humans. As an Assistant Professor in Medical Genetics at the University of Washington in Seattle, Hughes developed yeast-based models of human genetic diseases (in particular Huntington’s Disease) and generated yeast-based methods to screen chemicals against human protein targets, a beginning step in the search for therapeutics.

“You can do amazing things with yeast,” said Hughes, “You can use yeast as a ‘test tube’ to express human protein, then hunt for chemicals that will bind to that protein.” Hughes considers himself a yeast “technologist” and hopes to bring that technology to the overall study of natural neurodegeneration, and the chemical biology of aging. “Non-disease based neurodegeneration has a significant impact on people’s lives,” said Hughes, “I look forward to looking at the mechanisms of that degeneration and its connections to the aging process.”

Prior to his appointment at the Buck Institute, Hughes was Director of Therapeutic Biology at Prolexys Pharmaceuticals in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Hughes was an acting assistant professor in the Division of Medical Genetics, Department of Medicine at the University of Washington (UW) Medical School in Seattle, and was also a post-doctoral fellow at UW in the laboratory of Stanley Fields, PhD, a pioneer in yeast technology.  Hughes received his PhD in Biology from Yale University in 1992.

“Robert Hughes is a remarkably creative and insightful scientist, who will be an invaluable addition to our faculty,” said Dale Bredesen, MD, President of the Buck Institute. “His application of yeast genetics and high-throughput screening to studies of neurodegeneration and aging should contribute importantly to the discovery process for critically-needed therapeutics.” Bredesen also noted the significance of having all four major genetic models of aging available for research at the Institute. “Each of the models has a unique role in aging research, and each complements the other the others by weaving a different piece of the molecular tapestry of discovery,” said Bredesen. “Our research at the Institute is based on collaboration, and having an excellent researcher like Bob Hughes at work here will bring a new depth to our effort to understand aging and age-associated diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cancer, stroke and arthritis.”

The Buck Institute is an independent non-profit 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 age-related diseases. Collaborative research at the Institute is supported by genomics, proteomics and bioinformatics technology.

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