Levine's President's Lecture to explain how cells 'clean house'

By Kristen Holland Shear / March 28-31, 2011

For thousands of years, days of fasting have been incorporated into most of the world’s major religions. Some of Western medicine’s founding fathers even practiced and prescribed periods of fasting for serious ailments. More recently, researchers have found that intermittent fasting may have beneficial effects on a person’s health and longevity, but there is no consensus as to why the practice might be helpful.

Here at UT Southwestern, Dr. Beth Levine and her team are exploring how fasting activates a cellular process called autophagy, in which cells devour their own damaged or unneeded components.

“Cellular self-digestion by autophagy is emerging as a central biological pathway that functions to promote health and longevity,” said Dr. Levine.

Dr. Beth Levine

Dr. Levine will discuss her work in the next President’s Lecture Series on April 28. Her talk, “Your Cells Clean House To Keep You Healthy,” begins at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium.

A renowned specialist in the study of autophagy, Dr. Levine acknowledges that few people recognize the term, let alone know anything about the process. But she thinks autophagy — pronounced “aw-TAHF-a-gee” — should be commonplace in any discussion of neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, infectious diseases, cancer and aging.

Dr. Levine could make that happen.

Dr. Levine’s laboratory identified the first known gene in mammals that is responsible for autophagy. Her research has since shown that defects in the expression or function of the gene, called beclin 1, may contribute to cancer, aging, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and infectious diseases.

Conversely beclin 1 activity and the autophagy pathway appears to be important for protection against breast, lung, ovarian and perhaps other cancers, as well as fighting off viruses and bacterial infections, and protecting individuals from neurodegenerative diseases and aging.

Dr. Levine’s current research focuses on the role of autophagy in normal development and control of lifespan, the mechanisms by which autophagy genes suppress tumors, the biochemical mechanisms that regulate beclin 1 function, and the role of autophagy as a defense mechanism against certain viruses and bacteria.

“Insights gained from these studies are expected to lead to new genetic and pharmacologic approaches that may be useful in the treatment of many human diseases and in the prevention of aging,” Dr. Levine said.

 Unger lecture on June 2

Dr. Roger Unger, professor of internal medicine in the Touchstone Diabetes Center, will present the next installment of the President’s Lecture Series on Thursday, June 2 at 4 p.m. in the Tom and Lula Gooch Auditorium on the South Campus. The title of the lecture by Dr. Unger, who is also a physician at the Dallas VA Medical Center, is “Reinventing Diabetes and its Treatment: 50 Years of Glucagon Research.”

The goal of her research, she said, is to develop drugs that will increase beclin 1 expression and autophagy to help treat patients with diseases such as cancer and serious infections such as human immunodeficiency virus, tuberculosis and viral encephalitis. These drugs also might be useful in treating neurodegenerative diseases or in slowing the aging process, she said.

“This is an important pathway,” she said. “Hopefully, we will be able to modify autophagy to treat many important diseases.”

Dr. Levine, a professor of internal medicine and microbiology, received her medical degree from Cornell University Medical College. She completed her residency at Mount Sinai Hospital, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in infectious diseases at Johns Hopkins Hospital. She was a faculty member at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons before joining the UT Southwestern faculty in July 2004. A recipient of the American Cancer Society TIAA-CREF Award for Outstanding Achievements in Cancer Research, Dr. Levine was elected to membership in the American Society of Clinical Investigation in 2000 and the Association of American Physicians in 2006.

In 2008 she received one of four Edith and Peter O’Donnell Awards from The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas. The annual award honors researchers in science, medicine, engineering and technology innovation whose work seems destined for international prominence at the highest level.

The President’s Lecture Series was established in 2005 as a means for faculty members or senior administrators to share their work with the entire campus community. The one-hour lectures are offered several times each academic year and feature a discussion in everyday language on the basics of research and clinical programs, along with the broad implications of those programs for health and medicine. Each talk is followed by light refreshments and an opportunity to visit informally with the speaker.