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Clinical Interventions in Aging
Interview: Dr Walker
Listen to the interview with the Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Interventions in Aging, Dr Richard Walker, by clicking the Play button (the full interview is 22 minutes). A transcript of the interview is also provided below.
Q: Tell me a bit about yourself. What’s your degree in and where/when did you study?
Dr Walker: I began my studies at Rutgers University and I received a degree in pharmacy in 1961.
After that time I was involved in the Vietnam conflict and after that was over I went back to school in the late 60s and received a masters degree in biochemistry from New Mexico and a PhD in comparative endocrinology from Rutgers University in 1970.
Thereafter, I became assistant professor of biology at Clemson University in South Carolina. Then, after receiving tenure there, left and took post-doctoral fellowships at the Duke University College of Medicine in the Center for the Study of Aging and Human Development.
And thereafter went to the University of California at Berkeley for a post-doctoral training session with Paola Timiras in neuroendocrinology and neuropharmacology of aging.
Subsequently I became professor of anatomy and molecular biology at the University of Kentucky in the Sanders-Brown Research Center on Aging.
After a while I went to SmithKline Beecham as director of toxicology.
And then finally back to the University of South Florida as a professor of biochemistry.
And then subsequently retired in 1990 and now I have my own consulting company for physicians and practitioners … health providers for holistic medicine and anti-aging medicine and general, endocrinology, hormone replacement therapies etc.
Q: What led you to your particular interest in human aging?
Dr Walker: I actually started my career with that interest. It’s quite funny because in the '60s when the mantra was ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ I was worried about becoming over 30 so it became a central interest that I understand the mechanisms and the processes.
So I actually started my research degree after being a pharmacist and going back to study for my doctoral level with an interest in aging. So it’s been a career-long focus of my research and my general interests.
Q: How well do you think the current education system and educators serve students today?
Dr Walker: It’s difficult for me really to answer that question because of the distance of time between when I was a student as an undergraduate and before and today’s system.
I think that there is a tendency more today to focus on the methods rather than the substance. I feel that what we really have to do is to provide materials for the students to learn and nurture that interest.
I recall that when I was younger, and of course that was many years ago, things were more provided: to have information available rather than means of ensuring that everyone in a system who was capable of accepting it.
Perhaps that’s a prejudice on my part but it think that was the right way to go. I think that the current graduate system and the educational system post-doctoral and doctoral is fine as it is. I think it hasn’t changed very much.
One tries to find a good mentor and a system in which there is support for research and I think this serves the students well today.
I think, however, perhaps this doesn’t cast a broad net and perhaps that’s the concern of many educators.
Q: How can specialists in the field help patients better understand their work? For example, do you support the idea that academic/scholarly papers should all carry a “plain text explanation” of main findings/conclusions?
Dr Walker: I think this would be valuable, especially now that more and more of this information is available on the internet. So, as lay people are capable of accessing the information, there should be such explanations because of the general lack of expertise… or I should say the focus of expertise of many specialists.
I think this also goes not only for the lay public but also there should be less technical summaries for practitioners or non-academics who are really not familiar with the current levels of technology.
So the practitioner who is really serving the public now - as is our focus in ‘Clinical Interventions in Aging’ - should have perhaps less technical summaries of information that may be applicable to their practice.
Q: In your opinion, who’s doing the most interesting/exciting work in your field at the moment?
Dr Walker: It depends really on what I would express as my field. My training has been in neuroendocrinology of aging.
And, in that sense, I most respect George Merriam from the University of Washington who, as an academic physician, still has been taking less than a strictly scientific approach to his studies and looking at applications for human medicine: especially his current work now on growth hormone secretagogues [and] how they might be helpful in people as they become older to sustain cognitive functions and to maintain better quality of life.
I think George is an outstanding individual in the area of neuroendocrinology of aging.
But I also mentioned that my interests have been drifting over the years to understanding the essence of systems that regulate the aging process. In that sense, I’ve come to wish that I had better training in genetics.
However, I have read the work of outstanding people in that field. And those who I think have contributed most in this area are Stuart Kim at Stanford, and Cynthia Kenyon at the University of California, San Francisco, and Frank Slack at Yale. Those geneticists, I think, are doing outstanding work in understanding the basis of human aging and mortality.
Q: If we stick to the geneticists for a moment, what are the rapidly-evolving “hot” areas in that particular specialty right now? And what might they lead to?
Dr Walker: These are the most rapidly developing areas, I think. For example, Kim has just shown that there are genes that actually regulate the developmental process that continue to function beyond adulthood and these cause perturbations in homeostasis in animals that could be the cause of their undergoing senescence.
That is really a very attractive hypothesis for me because I’ve always thought that aging really is an extension of development that’s unregulated.
So the process of moving forward from a single fertilized egg to a competent organism has been selected in evolution.
However, turning off that developmental inertia results in a continuation of the change that is inherently necessary for development but maladaptive when we become stable organisms.
So, what’s interesting about Kim’s work is that he’s identified the genes that do cause this. He’s called this phenomenon developmental drift which could be the primary cause for aging.
I think these are very rapidly developing hot areas in my specialty interest - which is aging. And I think it will bring us to an understanding of the process very shortly and perhaps even allow then intervention that might modulate our life span and indeed our mortality within a decade, if not shorter.
Q: Who’s had the biggest influence on your career? What have they done that has been influential on you?
Dr Walker: My career was probably aided best by my post-doctoral mentor Paola Timiras at the University of California, Berkeley.
I had a very productive time there at the end of the ’70s and I left in 1980. But during that time I was able to do some work that gave me some insight into the ways that internal order becomes disturbed with advancing age.
The reputation of Dr Timiras and the facility support and the enthusiastic support she gave me in my work there allowed me to go on and get several NIH and NSF grants and Department of Defense grants after I left and this was really significantly important in terms of my career development especially in my work that was done at the University of Kentucky and beyond.
So I think I would say my dear friend and colleague Paola Timiras, who recently passed away, was the greatest influence on my career.
Q: What’s the most far-reaching change that you’ve experienced during your career?
Dr Walker: I think that this has been: the emergence of modern genetics. Interestingly, when I was a graduate student I was actually interested in studying genetics. But at that time in the late ’60s the focus was on viral genetics and my interest in eucaryotes ucaria and organisms were seen not to be relevant to genetics at that time.
So I took the alternative of looking at the study of endocrinology which I recognized as having control over general homeostasis and whole animal function.
Since that time there has been this explosion of knowledge in the field of genetics and, indeed, in three short decades we’ve come to complete the human genome project.
And now we’re talking, as I just have, about Stuart Kim’s work and others looking at the actual genes that regulate organism or meta-zone aging and, ultimately, human aging.
So I think that has been the most far-reaching change that I’ve experienced. And I think it’s been dramatic over the past 30 years.
Q: What changes might you expect to see in your area of specialization in five or 10 years’ time?
Dr Walker: In my specific area of endocrinology I think we’ve gotten a broad view – of course, endocrinology has also exploded since it first emerged early in the 20th century.
During my days as a student we’ve seen descriptions of the actual processes for things that were only guessed on before: the processes of ovulation, development of systems and as they’re regulated by hormones.
And I think what we’re going to see in endocrinology is more fine-grained evaluation of the molecular
mechanisms underlying this systems function.
Of course, in genetics, as I just said, we’re going to actually see development of better understanding of the actual primary or basic controls in evolution of mortality in aging.
So I think this is a very dramatic time. I’ve been lucky to experience a growth in a field that I’ve focused my work on.
And I think in the coming years the new and emerging scientists will have the opportunity for seeing dramatic growth in the field of genetics and aging which, of course, is my primary focus.
Q: Which area of science or medicine, outside your specialty, would you most like to know about?
Dr Walker: Well I guess I’ve just said that, mostly I regret not being a more active part in the field of genetics: playing a more active role in that area.
I currently am actually involved in a project that relates to that. I have been fortunate to form a relationship with the family of Brooke Greenberg who is a girl who has received considerable publicity in the media as being a 16 year old who appears to be as an infant. I’ve been studying her now for three years and just recently published a paper on her.
It seems that she might be an appropriate individual to test the hypothesis that developmental genes actually affect aging because we have looked at her now for many years and have not been able to find a clear-cut defect in her genome.
We’re searching now for the mutation that’s causing her condition. But it may very well be in homologs of the gene already identified by Kim as part of this developmental regulatory system.
So, this has allowed me to currently expand outside of my speciality into one of genetics and I’ve been fortunate to have colleagues who have helped me in these analyses. I’ll continue to work in that area for as long as I can.
Q: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Dr Walker: I wish I’d had the foresight to realize the growth of genetics because I would have spent most of my career in that area.
Q: Do you have any particular unfulfilled ambitions that you’d like to try to address in the future?
Dr Walker: I don’t know that they’re unfulfilled. I’ve written quite a few scientific papers. And I’m currently now writing a book for public consumption. It deals with aging and its underlying processes.
And I’m completing research on Brooke Greenberg to test this hypothesis and that will be part of that presentation.
So I think my ambitions – and I’ve been fortunate - have been fairly well fulfilled over my life and at 70 years of age I continue to be active.
Q: What’s your greatest achievement in your professional life, modesty aside?
Dr Walker: I guess … I’ve published some papers that have been very important, I think.
One of the things that I published with a colleague from Duke [University] back in the ’80s was an observation that during aging, in female organisms there is a progressive loss of temporal order. The timing of the LH Surge in females shifts out of phase with the ripening of the follicle and this ultimately leads to failure of reproductive cycling.
I think that’s a very important concept because I think earlier we thought that females use up their gametes, their eggs, are used up and this was the cause of menopause.
But in fact we see and we understand today that that’s not the case. That the reason females cease to be reproductively active is because there’s an intrinsic loss of timing. And this is true not only in the female, of course, but in others. The reason females are so good to study is because reproduction is cyclic.
And you can look at different phases of that and measure timing intervals and get a clear picture of how things change with aging.
I think that perspective was significant in terms of my research and I’m happy that that came about.
And, of course, realization or development of the hypothesis on the biological basis of aging and mortality has been a significant part of my life. It’s consumed a lot of my time.
And now, I think, I have the great opportunity of testing that in a human subject with Brooke Greenberg.
So, I think, if you ask a person if he’s been satisfied in his career and achieving goals in his life, I’m one of those people who are very happy with the way things have gone.
Q: What do you most dislike in your area of science?
Dr Walker: Well, I guess the thing that I dislike about science and medicine in general is that we tend to focus on single things or isolated events rather than looking at the organism as a whole.
That’s why I think it’s been important for me to take a role in which I try to communicate and co-operate with practitioners who are really working with whole animals, individuals, rather than pieces of them.
In science we tend to break things down to a primary level and when we do that we lose track of the fact that things are organized above that.
So, I think, what I often dislike about approaches that are taken in science and medicine is that we are reductionistic rather than being holistic.
But this is my perspective. It may be a prejudice but I guess that’s what you asked so that’s the way I answered that.
Q: If we turn back to the Open Access journals, what would you say are the benefits of journals such as Clinical Interventions in Aging?
Dr Walker: I think this is a great move forward in providing a means for the academic and the scientist to speak to the practitioner. In many cases, as I said before, information is sequestered in journals that are generally not reviewed by people in practice.
They don’t have access to MEDLINE, perhaps, or PubMed and sometimes are loath to buy a multitude of these papers, whereas Open Access gives them a free ability to check what’s going on currently in academic medicine and see if any of that information is relevant to their practice.
I would say that in addition to making… we’re using a political term now … a greater transparency of information from the laboratory to the public in general, Open Access provides this conveyance.
And I think this benefits not only the general public but also the practitioner who then can update his or her practice to the greater benefit of their patients.
So I think it’s a good thing.
Q: Finally, what’s your vision for the journal?
Dr Walker: I’ve had the privilege to be the Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Interventions in Aging for a couple of years now.
And I hope it serves the purpose for which it was developed: to become a standard of current interventions for practitioners of holistic medicine in terms of sustaining health and vitality throughout their patients’ lives.
I would like to turn this over to the next editor as being at least in the growth phase of this purpose.
I’ve been very happy and pleased to do this. And I’d like to thank, in closing, Tim Hill the publisher of Dove Medical Press for the opportunity to serve as editor of this fine journal.
Dr Richard Walker was interviewed by Ruth Le Pla on behalf of Dove Medical Press. Ruth has setup interviews with some of our other Editors-in-Chief, so keep a look out for these, they should provide some compelling reading.
If there is someone in a specialist field you would like to read an interview about let us know and we will do our best to arrange it.
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