Northwestern University scientist Robert D. Goldman, a highly regarded authority on the structure and function of the cytoskeleton, was named a recipient of the prestigious Ellison Foundation Senior Scholar Award, presented for novel, innovative and high-risk studies in the area of human aging.
Goldman is Stephen Walter Ranson Professor and chair of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. The $1 million, four-year award, which is one of 10 awarded to leading scientists each year, will provide flexible resources for Goldman’s research on human diseases linked to nuclear forms of intermediate filament proteins, the lamins.
Goldman’s laboratory has done much of the basic research on the lamins over the past several decades. Their studies have led to the discovery that the lamins are critical factors in DNA replication, gene transcription, nuclear assembly and chromatin organization. As a result, lamins are now considered extremely important factors in the area of epigenetics.
Mutations in nuclear lamin A now number close to 200 – all discovered in the past few years. These mutations cause diseases, collectively known as the “laminopathies,” which have been subdivided into 10 categories ranging from a relatively mild form of lipodystrophy to several forms of muscular dystrophy and cardiomyopathy.
One of the most fascinating of the laminopathies is Hutchison Gilford Progeria – a premature aging disease of children. The disease is very rare (1 in 8 million), but for well over 100 years, it has been thought to be a model for normal human aging.
Children afflicted with progeria first show relatively mild forms of aging beginning at approximately six months. This involves hair loss that rapidly leads to a wide spectrum of age-related problems, including cessation of growth, wrinkled skin, aged appearance, osteoporosis, arthritis and rampant cardiovascular disease that ultimately leads to heart attacks and strokes. The average lifespan of a child with progeria is 13 years.
The genetic basis of progeria recently was discovered by Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Institute at the National Institutes of Health. Collins, Goldman and Leslie Gordon, medical director of the Progeria Research Foundation, along with their respective laboratory groups, published an article on their collaborative research on progeria in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year.
In his 23 years as chair of cell and molecular biology, Goldman has overseen the development of a department that now ranks in the top 8 of its peer departments in 126 U.S. medical schools (American Association of Medical Colleges data). This year, cell and molecular biology faculty were awarded approximately $14 million in grant funding from the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, including several MERIT awards and Program Project Grants.
Goldman’s other passion in science lies in the area of the public’s understanding of science and technology. With Boyce Rensberger, award-winning former science editor of the Washington Post and now director of the Knight Scholar Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Goldman directs the Science Writers Fellowship Program at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass., which offers journalists the opportunity to gain hands-on experience with the laboratory techniques used by biomedical researchers.