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Vera Gorbunova delivers eighth Paul F. Glenn Lecture
MIT NEWS OFFICE, Vera Gorbunova delivers eighth Paul F. Glenn Lecture, Feb 16, 2017

Mice and rats rarely live more than five years. Yet some rodents, remarkably, can live up to 30. These notably long-lived rodents were the subject of Vera Gorbunova’s “Longevity and anticancer mechanisms in long-lived rodents,” the eighth annual Paul F. Glenn Distinguished Lecture on Feb. 7. The Department of Biology hosted the event at the MIT Stata Center.   

An expert on aging, the focus for this lecture series, Gorbunova is the Doris Johns Cherry Endowed Professor of Biology and Co-Director of the Rochester Aging Research Center at the University of Rochester. Her lecture described research performed in her laboratory on a variety of long-lived rodents, including both the naked mole rat and the blind mole rat, and the mechanisms by which they avoid cancer and regulate aging. It was a tale of careful experimentation and curious observations. As one example, when studying the very long-lived and cancer resistant naked mole rat, she made the serendipitous discovery that when cells from naked mole rats are grown in culture, the culture medium becomes viscous. That viscosity turns out to be caused by an especially large form of the sugar molecule hyaluronan. Through a series of elegant experiments, Gorbunova showed that hyaluronan was the key to the cancer resistance seen in naked mole rats.

Gorbunova trained as a biologist at different institutions around the world. She was an undergraduate biology major at St. Petersburg State University in St. Petersburg, Russia, and a graduate student in plant genetics at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovat, Israel. She was a postdoc with Siegfried Hekimi at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and with both Olivia M. Pereira-Smith and John Wilson at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

Gorbunova has received a number of prizes for her work, including a 2010 Glenn Foundation Award for Research in Biological Mechanisms of Aging, the 2013 ADPS/Allianz Longevity Research Prize (France), the 2014 Prince Hitachi Prize in Comparative Oncology, and the 2014 Davey Prize in Cancer Research.

As a prelude to the talk, Mark Collins, president and director of the Glenn Foundation, spoke about the foundation’s long interest in aging research, which it has been funding since 1965, when severe caloric restriction was the only thing known to increase lifespan. In addition to pointing out that Gorbunova was a recipient of a Glenn Foundation research award, he noted the passing of MIT Professor Susan Lindquist, who had served on the Glenn Foundation scientific advisory board.

The Glenn Foundation has made significant contributions to aging research at MIT over the last decade. In 2008, the Paul F. Glenn Laboratory for Science of Aging Research was established through a $5 million gift from the foundation and expanded with an additional $1 million gift in 2013. More recently, a $2 million gift in 2015 led to the formation of the Paul F. Glenn Center for Science of Aging Research at MIT, directed by Novartis Professor of Biology Leonard Guarente. Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, and Angelika Amon, the Kathleen and Curtis Marble Professor in Cancer Research, also conduct research as part of the center. 

Guarente introduced both Collins and Gorbunova, and invited the audience to join them for a reception held in the Koch Biology Building after the lecture.