For Dr. Thomas Rando, the path to becoming a physician-scientist began with something that he didn’t learn in high school biology.
After one class that touched on the connections between neurons and muscle fibers, Rando took it upon to himself to find all the information he could about how cells communicate through electrical signals. Soon, he began pursuing that interest at Harvard University, where he completed his undergraduate work, a doctorate in cell and developmental biology and his medical degree.
Rando joined the neurology faculty at the Stanford University School of Medicine in 1995. There, he founded a clinic to treat patients with Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a muscle-wasting disease that affects approximately 1 in 5,000 boys in the U.S. — and established a research program focused on muscular dystrophies, tissue repair and stem cell biology. For more than two decades, Rando’s lab also has studied the biology of aging. His work in that area was inspired by the patients he treated during his tenure as chief of neurology at the Veterans Affairs Palo Alto Health Care System.
Rando joined UCLA in October as director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research. In this interview, he addresses the future of his field, the importance of state support for stem cell research and what he might be doing if he had to choose another career. Answers have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What are your predictions for the future of aging research?
From my lab’s work and the work of others, it appears to be possible — whether through diet or drugs or new technologies — to restore youthful properties to old cells. And that gives us great hope that we’re on to something in terms of understanding the fundamental biological changes of aging that lead us to be susceptible to diseases like cancer, heart disease and dementia.
The No. 1 risk factor for all of these conditions is not the genes that you carry; it’s your age. And I think we’re close to understanding the biology of aging to the point where we can modify it to reduce an individual’s susceptibility to these diseases.
Today, when we test the blood of seemingly healthy people and find they have high cholesterol, we offer them statins to reduce their risk of a future stroke or heart attack. I can see a day when a blood test can tell us a person’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, lung cancer, diabetes or any of the other age-related diseases, and then we can prescribe the right drugs to reduce their susceptibility.
And if we can achieve that, the goal will be to reduce their risk factors for age-related diseases so they can live a healthier, long life as opposed to just a longer life. So that’s the focus of our research: Can we increase people’s “healthspan” so that as they get into their 70s, 80s, 90s, even their 100s, they’re still physically fit and mentally sharp?
In 2020, California voters passed Proposition 14, which allocated $5.5 billion to stem cell research. How will that help shape the field?
It will do two things. It will move the field forward at the right pace and lead to many more clinical trials of stem cell therapies. At the same time, it will advance basic science research, which will help us better understand the fundamental properties of stem cells and what they are capable of. I mean, stem cell research is still a relatively new field, and although we’ve learned a great deal in the past several decades, there’s still so much we have yet to discover.
We’re lucky to live in California, where voters agreed it was an important initiative, and I think it will turn out to be a financial boon for the state. There will be companies formed and diagnostics and therapeutics developed that will benefit the state enormously and, by extension, the country and the world.
What has surprised you about the research enterprise at UCLA?
When I was being recruited, many people touted UCLA’s collaborative culture. Honestly, I had heard that before from a lot of places; that’s a common thing for people to say. But I have never seen it more true than here at UCLA.
I’ve seen the collaborations that have been established, and I’ve seen the shared spaces and equipment — these are things that really inspire and energize people. That’s the way science is moving anyway — away from the individual investigator to cross-disciplinary team science. I shouldn’t have been surprised because UCLA is known for this, but I was duly impressed. I couldn’t ask for a better environment for a highly collaborative program like the Broad Stem Cell Research Center.
Why is collaboration so important in stem cell research?
We don’t just do great research here; we turn discoveries into first-in-human therapies. My role as director, and the role of the center as a whole, is to identify disease areas in which UCLA has expertise and bring all of the relevant experts together to form a pipeline from basic science research to clinical application. And there are so many disciplines that intersect with stem cell biology: medicine, life and physical sciences, engineering and dentistry are just a few.
What excites you about living and working in Los Angeles?
Making sure the university is active in the Los Angeles community is written into the genome of people at UCLA. The university is and considers itself to be a real part of the fabric of L.A., and the city views it that way, too. I’m really looking forward to expanding the stem cell center’s outreach to local high schools and health organizations.
If you had to choose a career other than your own, what would you be doing?
Woodworking is the kind of craft that I think I could have easily turned into profession and I would have loved it. When I was a young scientist, I could spend hours and hours at the lab bench, forget what time it was and forget to eat. The only other place I’ve ever experienced that is in a woodshop, where I could spend 12 hours working and be sorry that the day was over. I haven’t pursued that interest for a long time, but I’ve always thought I would get back to it one day.