UCLA chemist Steven G. Clarke named to endowed chair in gerontology
Removing molecular 'garbage' may be key to successful aging, Clarke says
By Rachel Champeau September 10, 2012 Category: Academics & Faculty, Campus News, Health Sciences, Research, UCLA News|Week
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Steven G. Clarke (Brentwood, Calif.) a distinguished professor in the department of chemistry and biochemistry in UCLA's College of Letters and Science, has been named to UCLA's Elizabeth and Thomas Plott Chair in Gerontology.
The endowed chair, held for a five-year term, is intended for a scholar who conducts research and education activities related to aging and longevity in the areas of molecular biology, neuroscience and immunology.
An authority in his field, Clarke focuses on the biochemistry of the aging process and conducts research aimed at understanding, on a molecular level, how human functions are maintained during aging.
His research team has proposed that a major factor in the successful aging of all organisms is how well age-generated molecular "garbage" — damaged proteins, nucleic acids, lipids and small molecules — can either be repaired or eliminated from the body. His lab has analyzed protein-repair systems and novel types of enzymes that may contribute to reducing this buildup of damage in aging organisms.
Specifically, Clarke's team discovered and characterized the repair system involving the enzyme L-isoaspartyl methyltransferase, or PCMT. Early research on this enzyme's ability to repair defective proteins demonstrated that mice lacking sufficient PCMT had a significant increase in the number of damaged proteins in their tissues, particularly in the brain. Deficiencies in this enzyme have been linked to epilepsy and may also play a role in several degenerative diseases.
According to Clarke, understanding such pathways may help spur the future development of interventions to enhance these repair systems in the elderly, helping address declines in muscle strength, lung capacity, mental status, eye-lens clarity, heart output and other losses of function.
Clarke added that we may now be at the tip of the iceberg in our understanding of how many repair activities exist and how these activities may be manipulated for healthy living, particularly with diet and pharmaceuticals.
"I'm excited to accept the appointment to the Plott Chair and to continue our research in this critical field," said Clarke, who also directs UCLA's Cellular and Molecular Biology Training Program.
Dr. Gary Small, director of the UCLA Longevity Center and the Parlow–Solomon Professor on Aging, noted the importance of Clarke's work and other research on aging, especially as baby boomers are turning 60 at the rate of one every eight seconds.
"With a growing population of older adults, we greatly appreciate the Plott family's continued support in helping lay the groundwork for advancing education and research on aging," he said.
The Plott Chair was established by Elizabeth and Thomas Plott in 1993. Four UCLA researchers have previously held the chair position.
Elizabeth Plott was a former member of the UCLA Longevity Center's board of directors. The Plott Chair is selected by a committee of UCLA aging experts in the fields of neurology, geriatrics, psychiatry and pathology.
Clarke has received numerous awards, including the American Chemical Society's Ralph F. Hirschmann Award in Peptide Chemistry, a MERIT award from the National Institutes of Health and a Senior Scholar Award in Aging from the Ellison Medical Foundation.
A respected teacher, Clarke received the UCLA Academic Senate's Distinguished Teaching Award, which also included the Eby Award for the Art of Teaching, in 2002.
Clarke, who has been a member of the UCLA faculty since 1978, directed the UCLA Molecular Biology Institute from 2001 to 2011. He received his doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biology from Harvard University and did his undergraduate work in chemistry and zoology at Pomona College.
UCLA is California's largest university, with an enrollment of nearly 38,000 undergraduate and graduate students. The UCLA College of Letters and Science and the university's 11 professional schools feature renowned faculty and offer 337 degree programs and majors. UCLA is a national and international leader in the breadth and quality of its academic, research, health care, cultural, continuing education and athletic programs. Six alumni and five faculty have been awarded the Nobel Prize.