A Conversation with…Dr. Luigi FerrucciFebruary 28, 2013
In May 2011, NIA appointed internationally known gerontologist and epidemiologist Luigi Ferrucci, M.D., Ph.D., as scientific director. Dr. Ferrucci originally joined the NIA in 2002 to serve as chief of the Longitudinal Studies Section and director of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study on Aging (BLSA). Before coming to NIA and the U.S., he was chief of geriatric rehabilitation at the Department of Geriatric Medicine and director of the Laboratory of Clinical Epidemiology at the Italian National Institute of Aging, where he collaborated with the U.S. National Institute on Aging.
Beginning his career as a geriatrician and then earning a doctorate in the biology and pathophysiology of aging from the University of Florence in Italy, Dr. Ferrucci has long been interested in the aging process. When he was in his early 20s, while many of his friends were idealizing rock stars and soccer players, Dr. Ferrucci recalls, he admired the career and work of Dr. Nathan Shock, BLSA founder and chief of the Gerontology Branch at NIH in the 1940s. Dr. Ferrucci’s multidisciplinary background forms the basis for some of his goals as scientific director.
Dr. Ferrucci has made major contributions in the design of many epidemiological studies conducted in the U.S. and Europe. His research has been aimed at reducing the burden of disease and disability in older people. He is credited with the discovery that physical and cognitive functional status—not a disease or condition by itself—is the most important measure of health and homeostatic equilibrium in older people. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the Joseph T. Freeman Award from the Gerontological Society of America and the title of Honorary Member by the Board of Directors of the Italian Society of Gerontology and Geriatrics in 2011.
Dr. Ferrucci was asked by the Spotlight on Aging Research to talk about his interest in aging research, his first year as NIA scientific director, and his vision for the future of NIA and the study of aging.
Q: What initially attracted you to aging research?
A: My interest started when I was still a teenager. I was a waiter at a Red Cross dinner in Italy, and I met this professor, Francesco Maria Antonini, who would later become my mentor. He asked me what I was doing there, and I said I wanted to do something to help the world be a better place, something that was important. And so he spent 2 hours explaining to me why, if I wanted to do something important, I needed to study aging because aging would be the most important force that would change everything in the world—from society to family to economics to health care. He said that these changes were already happening and no one was really studying them. That was what initially sparked my interest in aging research. When I started looking into it, I recognized that there were many fascinating aspects of aging that I wanted to study. And my mentor was right; this work fulfills my desire to be useful to society.
Q: In May 2011, you were appointed NIA scientific director. What is your role for the Institute?
A: The scientific director sets the stage for the science produced by the Intramural Research Program (IRP). Of course, this is done in concert with all the scientists who participate in the IRP. The scientific director has a global, 360-degree view of what is happening in the different laboratories and then helps coordinate their work so that they interact with each other and maintain their focus on the mission of the Institute. Another important role of the scientific director is to make sure that resources are used most productively, leading to the best science that can be produced within the Institute.
Scientists have very specific purposes for their projects and a vision of the immediate future, leading to their next paper. The scientific director needs to have a wider perspective and look a bit farther into the future. How is science changing? What are the emerging areas of investigation that will be important to include in the IRP to continue to do state-of-the-art science?
That is really the role I like the most. I read constantly and try to talk to as many people as I can to understand what’s happening in the aging field. I work to introduce new areas and ideas from the field and see how the IRP investigators can interact with other successful, bright, and creative scientists in the field.
Q: Before becoming NIA scientific director you were director of NIA’s Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging. How has your experience at NIA prior to becoming scientific director helped with your new position, including your reorganization of the IRP?
A: When I came to NIA, I was asked to take a hard look at the BLSA. The BLSA was probably the most famous and successful study on aging in the world, but had faded to some degree because its technology and approaches were no longer state of the art. Also, the BLSA previously had been a consortium of investigators working together. But at that time, the collaboration was no longer successful and the study was fragmented across many different places and among different investigators.
The first thing I did as BLSA director was to create a scientific paradigm for the study—to determine what the study should achieve, not only in the next 10 years, but in the next 50 years. A study like this is really created for our children and our grandchildren, to provide for them the opportunity to build on what we are learning today about aging.
Revitalizing the BLSA was a challenge, but it was also fascinating. I could concentrate exclusively on my goals for the study without thinking about larger scale financial issues, interpersonal challenges, or competing interests at the IRP. I had a great team at the BLSA to count on and greater resources than I had been used to in Italy, so I could really do a good job.
When I became scientific director, I had to deal with many similar infrastructure problems but in a much different dimension.
One of IRP’s greatest assets is its incredibly brilliant scientists. I’m always amazed by their papers and the fantastic science that they produce. But the problem with the IRP was that our conceptualization of aging was becoming outdated. We were looking at aging fractured across multiple systems—the aging of the heart, the brain, the liver, the bone, the muscle.
The past decade has transformed our understanding of the biological mechanisms underlying aging. We need to have an integrated view of aging, where aging is the common phenomenon, the driving force of changes occurring across the entire body in an almost harmonic way. Likewise, it’s important that the different IRP scientists with their different research interests collaborate and combine their knowledge to start looking at this overall, overarching theme of aging.
It was on this basis that I reconceptualized the IRP within the limit of the available resources, trying to maintain our important work but also add to it and enhance its value. So, in a way this task was similar to my work reorganizing the BLSA but on a much larger, complicated scale. (Read more about the IRP reorganization.)
Q: What is the greatest challenge of your new position?
A: We’ve got amazing scientists at the IRP, but they have different personalities and approaches to their work. Part of my responsibility as scientific director is to make sure that the researchers lead successful, productive careers and don’t let idiosyncrasies get in the way of effective collaboration. If you are working in a group of scientists who are talking together, who have a collaborative spirit, and are working as a team, of course the productivity attained is completely different than if you are working in isolation. And also, most people love to work in this environment and so they’re stimulated to do their best work.
Q: What are some of the changes you’ve implemented in the NIA Intramural Research Program since becoming scientific director?
A: I really wanted to emphasize a larger integration among the different tiers of science. To be more precise, I think that the people who do basic biology have incredible knowledge about the biology of aging at the cellular level. Then there are people who work with animal models, from mice to primates. And then there are epidemiologists, people who run clinical trials, and those who work on drug development. The problem has always been that the labs were created to focus on one thing, and they had little osmosis and shared communication.
So what I did was shuffle the cards. We reorganized many of the laboratories so that they were made up of people who do basic biology, animal models, and clinical research. When these scientists work together in this way, I hope they can start sharing their experiences and create a translational energy. So, those ideas that come from basic biology are more easily and rapidly translated into interventions that can really benefit older people.
One of the other major things I did was to increase the level of transparency, especially when it comes to funding decisions made about the IRP. Not everyone agrees with every decision, but at least now everybody receives notification of those decisions and the rationale and data on which they are based, especially the financial decisions.
So there’s increased transparency about how decisions are made. And in this context, I think one of the important things I created was direct communication between the Office of the Scientific Director and the scientists who are running the core facilities, which are the technical facilities that serve the needs of the different labs and the different investigators. I receive progress reports on how those cores are functioning, and I can make any necessary changes quickly and effectively, instead of waiting until problems arise.
I’ve also created a lab chief lunch every month. We spend an hour and a half talking about science, especially new ideas emerging in the lab, what we call the green bananas, those that are still not ready for prime time, but that may be implemented in the future. I’m also trying to create other opportunities for informal communication exchange.
Q: What are the greatest opportunities of your new position? What excites you about being scientific director?
A: This is the dream job for me. The opportunities of the IRP are enormous, with so many different types of expertise in one place. You rarely have that span of knowledge under the same roof.
Ultimately, my hope for the future is that the IRP will make discoveries that will allow us to prevent some of the cognitive decline that occurs with aging and to substantially prevent some of the physical decline and frailty that occur with aging. And, if we are able to do this even a little bit, I think that will be an enormous contribution to society.
In 2012, the NIA Intramural Research Program went through a major overhaul. Reorganized to recognize new paradigms in the field of aging research, the program now integrates labs and resources in a way that Dr. Ferrucci hopes will better foster discovery. Working with NIA Director Dr. Richard J. Hodes, Deputy Scientific Director Dr. Michele Evans, and the IRP lab chiefs and staff, Dr. Ferrucci took on this project as one of his first tasks as scientific director.
The idea was to bring together people who share a similar research interest, but who are coming at it from different vantage points. For instance, in the new Translational Gerontology Branch, there’s an overarching goal of finding ways to extend health span and lifespan. Some researchers are looking at the effects of nutritional supplements in flies; others are looking at the effects of supplements, such as resveratrol and sirtuins, on health and longevity in mice and nonhuman primates; and still others are looking at traits that contribute to extreme longevity in people in the BLSA. Because all of these researchers share a common laboratory, they are more likely to interact, to determine how to move possible interventions up through cellular and animal models to humans. And this laboratory is not unique in the IRP. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology, for example, is studying multiple aspects of DNA repair, from biomarkers of DNA repair to new ways to visualize the repair to telomeres and their protective effects during cell division.
Another important aspect of the NIA IRP reorganization was the development of a central core that manages all the technology serving the laboratories and works directly with the Office of Scientific Director. Equipment used by the laboratories evolves rapidly, so this centralized unit helps guarantee all IRP scientists have access to the state-of-the-art technology. This group prepares regular reports to the scientific director and makes suggestions about what technology needs to be purchased or updated. Finally, each laboratory is part of one of three larger groups based on its particular research focus. This additional linkage between the laboratories further promotes cross-pollination and ultimately the opportunity to move the science forward more rapidly. NIA IRP’s new organization:
Page last updated: February 26, 2015