September 2010

Richard Hanson: A Maestro of Metabolism

These PEPCK-Cmus mice turned out to have a dramatic phenotype, which included exceptional endurance (they could run on a treadmill 30 times as long as a regular mouse), hyperactivity even at advanced ages and lean, muscular bodies despite eating twice as much as normal. They also displayed incredible longevity, with one female reaching more than 4.5 years of age (typical lab mice live 2–3 years), though Hanson notes they didn’t quite break the record and win the Methuselah Prize for the longest-living mouse (which, for the curious, currently stands at 1819 days).


It’s a scientifically fascinating discovery, the mechanistic basis of which his lab currently is trying to unravel, and, not surprisingly, one that produced intense media interest as well, much to Hanson’s chagrin. “It was nonstop action for a while; I think our video of the mice running on the treadmill got more than 300,000 hits in the first few weeks after the study came out, not to mention all of the interview requests I received, even a few from documentary film producers who wanted to include our mouse video in movies about athletic performance and potential sports doping.”

The attention was a bit too much for the modest scientist, a man who says that “he never wants to work at a university where he is the smartest; it’s surely not a good place to work!”

“It was wonderful that our lab and the university received some positive attention, but, at the same time, this kind of sensational news worries me as a scientist, because we still are far away from developing performance-enhancing treatments in humans, and we really do not understand the factors that lead to the phenotype we observe with these mice.”

He often quotes the famous dictum of Euripides that was modified by Sidney Brenner in his review of the book by James D. Watson, “Avoid Boring People,” “Whom the gods would destroy, they first expose to the public press.”

A Promise of a New Day

Considering that Richard Hanson still is going strong with his teaching, research and editorial duties at 75 years of age, one might suspect that he shares some genetic traits with his PEPCK-Cmus mice.

However, Hanson admits things don’t get easier as one gets older and already is preparing for the next fork in the road of life. He’s getting ready to close up his lab and officially will become an emeritus professor in 2014.

However, he plans to continue collaborative research with his friend and close colleague, Satish C. Kalhan at the Cleveland Clinic, on studies of whole-body metabolism in mammals. “I especially am interested in amino-acid metabolism, and working with Satish is a learning experience for me,” he notes. In addition, he will continue to study the PEPCK-Cmus mice, which now are being used, in collaboration with Nathan A. Berger, to better understand the effect of exercise on the development of colon cancer.

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