Interview with Jan Vijg, Ph.D.
Jan Vijg, Ph.D., is Professor and Chairman of the Department of Genetics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. He received his Ph.D. at the University of Leiden, The Netherlands. He founded Ingeny B.V., a Dutch Biotechnology company, in 1990 and served as the company's Scientific Director until 1993, when he moved to Boston to take up a position as Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. In 1998, Dr. Vijg accepted an offer from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Texas, to become a Professor in the Department of Physiology. From 2006 to 2008, he was a Professor at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato, California. With his research team he was the first to develop transgenic mouse models for studying mutagenesis in vivo and has used these models ever since to study the relationship between damage to the genome and aging. He has published over 200 scientific articles and two books, and is inventor or co-inventor on eight patents.
Dr. Vijg, what led you to become a biogerontologist?
Jan Vijg: When I was a student, I was working at the University of Leiden, in Holland, in the Department of Immunohaematology. It was a famous department led by Jon van Rood, one of the discoverers of the human leukocyte antigen (HLA) system. Roy Walford, a University of California, Los Angeles gerontologist who was a good friend of Jon's and became well known for his research on aging and his participation in the Biosphere project, at that time had just finished writing his book, The Immunological Theory of Aging. Jon invited him to give a talk on his theory linking the importance of the immune system in aging to DNA repair. The theory proposed that the accumulation of DNA mutations with aging disrupts the immune system and that DNA repair is an important component of the defense system against mutations.
I was so impressed by his presentation that I decided to move into the field of aging research. Shortly thereafter I had to choose an area for my Ph.D. studies. One of my choices was a laboratory in Rotterdam doing DNA repair research and another was the Institute for Experimental Gerontology, a government-funded institution. I picked the Institute with its focus on aging and was intent on studying the link between DNA repair, genome instability, and aging. So it was Roy Walford's exciting presentation about the mysteries of the aging process that led me to become a biogerontologist.
What is the main focus of your current research efforts and what are the major projects you are pursuing?
JV: The focus has never changed from what I picked up from Roy Walford's talk, that the possible cause of aging could simply be that our genetic material was not designed to last forever and that there is inherent instability in the genome that affects function. We have to study the genome during the aging process and understand the mechanisms that protect us...