Aug. 17, 2022 — When mechanics evaluate cars, they look at how their function is affected by mileage and age, not just how their components work. After all, a 3-year-old car likely functions better than a 20-year-old car.
The same can be said for the human body, where studying how a cell, an organ and the whole body works — not just under normal conditions but also during disease states and throughout the life cycle — is crucial to understanding physiological processes, said Andrew Liu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Medicine who studies circadian rhythms and the sleep/wake cycle.
Since the College of Medicine’s beginnings in 1956, researchers like Liu in the department of physiology and functional genomics have generated discoveries in fetal development, gene therapy, vascular biology and cell/receptor signaling, while educators have trained the next generation of basic scientists focused on understanding the human body at a cellular and molecular level. Meanwhile, since 2005 investigators in the department of aging and geriatric research have worked to improve the health and quality of life of older adults, using state-of-the-art clinical research space to integrate leading-edge research into clinical practice and educate future geriatric medicine scientists and clinicians.
Under the direction of Charles E. Wood, Ph.D., chair of the department of physiology and functional genomics and interim chair of the department of aging and geriatric research, the college has now combined the departments’ expertise to create a new integrated academic unit: the department of physiology and aging. The merger, completed with input from faculty in both disciplines, will consolidate the educational programs and research endeavors under one umbrella.
“The new department will do everything from bench research to applied human research, and we will cover the lifespan of the human body,” Wood said. “For example, as a fetal physiologist, I work with OB-GYN on placental biology and healthy pregnancies and outcomes. On the other end, we have great strength in terms of work that keeps older people healthy. I’m proud that we will now have everything from basic cell molecular biology to outcomes and applications that will cover the very beginning of life to the end of life under one department. The synergy with the faculty will be fantastic because now we’re not just simply talking about aging; we’re talking about the whole lifespan.”
The newly formed department of physiology and aging, home to 26 faculty members, is poised to enhance collaboration, with experts working side by side to conduct bench-to-bedside research examining all life phases of the human body.
“This restructured department offers an opportunity to leverage the knowledge and masteries of both disciplines to build stronger partnerships that will place us on the national stage as a hub of lifespan research,” said Colleen Koch, M.D., M.S., M.B.A., dean of the College of Medicine. “We look forward to partnering with the department of physiology and aging to promote world-class research and education that helps people age with optimal health and function during all stages of their lives.”
Plans for the integrated department include enhancing research efforts in each discipline and building a new master’s program in medical physiology and gerontology. For faculty such as Christiaan Leeuwenburgh, Ph.D., it presents exciting scientific and mentoring opportunities.
“Our faculty have made significant advances in better understanding the biology and physiology of aging by understanding the cellular and molecular changes that occur during our lifespan,” said Leeuwenburgh, a professor whose major research centers on the molecular mechanism of iron regulation, DNA damage and mitochondrial function with age. “As our faculty learn more about these physiological and biological changes, interventional experiments can be designed to prevent or treat disease. This research also provides important clues toward developing the timing of interventions to improve physiological function. From a career development perspective, I also see this integration as an opportunity to work with early-stage investigators in developing their programs in physiology and aging.”
As the director of the physiology concentration in the college’s Graduate Program in Biomedical Sciences, Liu believes the restructured department will attract more graduate students and postdoctoral researchers, leading to a more engaged and interactive presence at events such as conferences, seminars, journal clubs and data discussions.
“Our research is not defined by the name of the department; it’s about the questions we ask,” Liu said. “We have shared goals and approaches, and our different perspectives can benefit us all. With new ideas, new models and new blood coming into this discipline, I feel this new department can make an important mark. With more minds and more resources, we will have a vibrant energy going forward.”