by Buck Institute
January 23, 2023 . Donor Appreciation
Retired surgeon Jim Johnson kick-starts the BIKE trial with $250,000 contribution
“This project is a perfect fit for me as an extension of my professional interests,” says former plastic surgeon Jim Johnson, MD who has been intensely focused on diet, health and longevity for decades. His $250,000 gift to the Buck provided the seed money to get the Buck’s first clinical trial off the ground. The BIKE Study is the first ever biological clinical study of ketones in older adults as well as the first human clinical trial conducted at the Buck Institute.
“We are so grateful for Jim’s generosity to the Buck,” said Buck President and CEO Eric Verdin. “With his background he is the perfect partner to help us launch our first ever clinical trial. The fact that he lives in Marin and is working with the team is a huge plus and makes the work even more rewarding.” Dr. Johnson is already taking a ketone supplement which makes him ineligible to take part in the trial, but he has volunteered to work with study staff to help in any way he can.
His early interest
A former assistant professor of otolaryngology and instructor in plastic surgery at Louisiana State University School of Medicine, Johnson’s interest in health and longevity came early in the most personal of ways. He took a summer job with a pathologist at the University of Michigan while he was in medical school. During autopsies, he saw hearts ravaged with calcifications and plaques. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with a congenital bicuspid aortic valve, which put him at risk for the same pathology. He had open heart surgery to replace the valve 35 years later.
In addition, he developed type 2 diabetes in his mid-40’s, which both his parents had had, but not until their 70's. “All of this made me acutely concerned about my own future health,” says Johnson, “and it motivated me to learn whatever I could about the pathophysiology of aging and resistance to aging. I began to read everything I could get my hands on.”
His early professional involvement
Johnson got familiar with the science behind caloric restriction before limiting calories got trendy. Describing the concept of decreasing food intake as a means of increasing longevity as “astonishing,” he followed leaders in the field and read papers including a mouse study by Mark Mattson, a neuroscientist at the NIH who is well known for developing a program for intermittent fasting. Mattson put mice that were genetically engineered to be obese on caloric restriction resulting in better health for the obese mice than for the normal mice that continued to eat regular mouse chow. “A lightning bolt went off for me,” says Johnson. “I was curious if I could do it myself. I started experimenting on myself to determine how many calories I could get by on. I had some friends who joined in.” In 2008 (revised in 2013) he co-wrote a guide to intermittent fasting.
Johnson has experience with clinical trials. He organized one in 2006 with the head of the pulmonology section at Louisiana State University where he was on staff in plastic surgery. The trial involved overweight people with asthma. Mattson was a key consultant. Ten people did intermittent fasting for eight weeks. At the end of the trial, those who had bad asthma had pronounced improvements in their condition. They also had serum chemistries that showed a great reduction inflammatory markers and oxidative stress. Johnson says the paper was the first clinical trial published by a group of people “in the wild” that proved that fasting could impact a health condition. “I was really proud of that work,” he says.
Life in Marin includes the Buck
As luck would have it, Johnson relocated from New Orleans to Marin County after he retired, where his three daughters and former spouse live. After a few years, he realized that he was living just a few minutes away from the Buck, the epicenter for cutting edge research into the physiology of the aging. When he found out more about the research the Buck was doing, he realized that the Institute was poised to take his work with Mark Mattson to a whole new level.
One of the findings from the Mattson-Johnson study of 2007 was a marked elevation in the blood levels of ketones on the days of low-calorie intake. Ketones are a particular class of organic molecule that the human body produces in response to fasting. Dr. Johnson learned that the Buck’s John Newman and Eric Verdin were investigating the possibility that directly administering ketones to people might produce some of the same health benefits as elevating blood ketone levels through intermittent fasting.
Lisa Palma, the Buck’s director of philanthropy, connected Johnson with Buck professor John Newman and translational scientist Brianna Stubbs, who were in the process of organizing the BIKE study. “I immediately saw the connection with my work in alternate day caloric restriction, and I knew that their research was the next step,” says Johnson. “I know how hard it is to stay on a ketogenic diet. The possibility of being able to mimic its effects via supplementation is very exciting.”
Johnson has been taking a ketone supplement for a year. While acknowledging that he can’t dismiss a possible placebo effect, he says his personal trainer has noted an increase in muscle strength. Johnson says his mood is improved, he has more energy, task initiation has become easier, and his brain is functioning better.
Johnson says he loves visiting the Buck and interacting with our scientists. In addition to supporting BIKE, he has donated to the work of Buck professor Judith Campisi, furthering her research on senescent cells. He has also donated to Professor Malene Hansen, who is exploring the use of spermidine as a way of promoting autophagy, a cell cleanup mechanism that shows promise in treating many age-related diseases.
“There is no greater thrill than the eureka moment when a scientist discovers something new,” says Johnson. “I find nothing more exciting than the progress of science. Living near the Buck institute is an extraordinary piece of good luck for me. And I’m very much looking forward to seeing the findings that come out of the Buck Institute’s first clinical trial – the first, I hope, of many.”
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