by Buck Institute

Exceptional Early Career Scientist Joins the Buck with a $2.4M Federal Grant

Buck Institute researcher Chuankai Zhou, PhD, has been awarded a prestigious $2.4 million Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health. As a part of the NIH Director’s award in the High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, this five-year grant allows the newly appointed Buck Fellow to skip traditional postdoctoral training and move immediately into independent research.

“Dr. Zhou is exploring a big idea in biology and aging research, looking for ways to turn back the clock at the cellular level,” said Eric Verdin, MD, Buck Institute President and CEO. “We’re very excited to have him here and to give him opportunities to take advantage of our faculty expertise and technologies.”

“There is no place better than the Buck Institute for collaborative research on aging,” said Zhou, who developed and mastered many cutting-edge imaging, proteomics, and biochemical technologies while pursuing his PhD in Molecular and Integrative Physiology from the University of Kansas School of Medicine and the Stowers Institute for Medical Research. “I’ve been interested in studying aging since my early days in graduate school,” he said. “Now I will be in the perfect environment to take my work to the next level.”

Zhou, who recently arrived at the Buck from Stowers, studies mechanisms involved in protein folding and stability. Proteins, the building blocks of our cells, tend to misfold with age, a phenomena associated with many age-related diseases including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. While it’s well known that misfolded proteins contribute to the buildup of toxic molecules associated with disease, little is understood about how the misfolding affects the integrity of the structures within the cells. Zhou will study protein folding and misfolding in both young healthy and aging cells – with the goal of understanding disease processes as well as identifying mechanisms that can be exploited to rejuvenate aging cells.

Zhou’s Early Independence Award is included in the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) High-Risk, High-Reward Research program, which funded 86 awards to exceptionally creative scientists proposing to use highly innovative approaches to tackle major challenges in biomedical research. NIH Director Francis Collins, MD, PhD, was involved in selecting recipients “I continually point to this program as an example of the creative and revolutionary research the NIH is supporting,” said Collins. “The quality of the investigators and the impact their research has on the biomedical field is astounding. I always look forward to seeing what the new awardees are proposing and to watching how it is accomplished over the years.”

Zhou was first author on three major research papers while pursuing his PhD – an unusual accomplishment for a graduate student. Publishing in Cell in 2014, his work challenged the prevailing notion that toxic misfolded proteins spontaneously clump together within the cell. Instead, he found that the vast majority of toxic aggregates form on the surface of the major organelles under tight control of protein synthesis in the cells. Working in yeast he also discovered the mechanism used by the cell to prevent the passage of the defective molecules to its daughter cells, which is part of the rejuvenation program to help the daughter cell to reset its aging clock. In his recent paper, which was published in Nature this year, he found that mitochondria play an unexpected role in tethering and importing misfolded proteins during their clearance. By identifying the quality control mechanisms that normally operate in the cells, Zhou provided information that is poised to be relevant to treating disorders and to impacting the aging process itself.

Acknowledgement: Dr. Zhou will be funded under NIH Grant DP5-OD-024598.

Science is showing that while chronological aging is inevitable, biological aging is malleable. There's a part of it that you can fight, and we are getting closer and closer to winning that fight.

Eric Verdin, MD, Buck Institute President and CEO

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