Science of Aging is Focus of New Bakar Research Institute  

By Alan Toth

portrait of Leanne Jones

Leanne Jones, PhD, will join UCSF from UCLA to lead the new Bakar Aging Research Institute.

UC San Francisco is launching the Bakar Aging Research Institute (BARI), a scientific community that aims to translate breakthroughs in aging research across many disciplines into new approaches and treatments that help people remain healthy and vibrant in later life. 

The new Institute will bring together scientists and clinicians from all UCSF sites to address the most critical questions related to the science of aging. BARI members will be drawn from the UCSF Memory and Aging Center, the UCSF Hillblom Center for the Biology of Aging, the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatrics, and the UCSF Institute for Health and Aging, as well as many individual departments. 

BARI will be headed by stem-cell scientist Leanne Jones, PhD, who will join UCSF from UCLA to serve as director and professor in the Department of Anatomy, with a joint appointment in the Department of Medicine’s Division of Geriatrics. 

“For aging research, the Bay Area is one of the best places in the world to be,” said Jones. “That’s one of the reasons UCSF is so appealing to me – in addition to the world-class labs here, you’ve got excellent scientists interested in aging at the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, UC Berkeley and Stanford, as well as many biotech and pharma companies on the Peninsula. Starting a new institute at UCSF focused on aging is an unparalleled opportunity. Seminal discoveries related to aging have been made at UCSF, and I see this new effort as a recognition of those, and laying the foundation for continued groundbreaking work.”  

Starting a new institute at UCSF focused on aging is an unparalleled opportunity. Seminal discoveries related to aging have been made at UCSF, and I see this new effort as a recognition of those, and laying the foundation for continued groundbreaking work.

Leanne Jones, PhD

The diverse perspectives and breadth of approaches, coupled with UCSF’s strongly collaborative culture, ensure that the Institute is uniquely positioned to achieve its primary goals. First, BARI will unite researchers and encourage cross-collaboration, and will also position UCSF to make key recruitments in aging science to bridge and build research groups. Second, BARI researchers will strive to uncover the molecular and cellular underpinnings of how and why we age, as a roadmap to understand what sets the stage for developing age-related diseases such as cancer, neurodegeneration, and cardiovascular disease. Working with UCSF’s world-renowned clinicians, BARI researchers will develop cutting-edge technologies and therapeutic strategies to slow or reverse the aging process, as well as new ways to diagnose and tackle diseases of aging. Finally, the Institute will help to establish best practices for equitable care for older adults in our communities, thereby improving quality of life for everyone.

Saul Villeda, PhD, a UCSF neuroscientist, will serve as associate director of the new Bakar Aging Research Institute. 

To lead the new Institute, Jones will be joined by UCSF neuroscientist Saul Villeda, PhD, assistant professor of anatomy, who will serve as associate director. Villeda is well known for his innovative research on aging. In a much-publicized study published in 2020, for example, he showed how exercise prompts the liver to produce an enzyme that promotes better cognitive function and helps prevent neurodegenerative decline. He believes that this enzyme might one day be administered as a drug to provide the same benefits to those unable to do vigorous physical activities.  

In addition to Jones and Villeda, the institute will be guided by an executive committee that includes Nobel laureate Elizabeth Blackburn, PhD, professor emeritus of biochemistry and biophysics; Diana Laird, PhD, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences; Hao Li, PhD, professor of biochemistry and biophysics; and John Newman, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine. 

BARI takes flight in the Bay Area at an opportune time. California has the largest aging population in the United States, and in San Francisco the trend is even more pronounced – some 30 percent of the population will be over age 60 by 2030 according to the San Francisco Human Services Agency. 

Meeting the growing health care needs of this expanding demographic will be challenging, but Bay Area institutions are well suited to address these challenges, said Jones, whose work in tissue regeneration has revealed the impact that aging has on the ability of stem cells to maintain tissues throughout the body.  

Being able to take an observation in the lab and immediately work with clinicians to develop a novel therapy or intervention to target the processes that contribute to aging is one of the immediate goals of the new Institute. Therefore, Jones and Villeda said, fostering communication between basic scientists and clinicians to enhance translational medicine is essential.  

“Philanthropy received for this Institute will invest in the people, technologies, and research projects needed to drive deeply collaborative aging research at UCSF,” said UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood, MBBS. “The Bakar Aging Research Institute will be a key driver for innovation throughout UCSF, and particularly at Parnassus Heights, where it will be headquartered. By aligning our community around a shared research agenda, and empowering them with cutting-edge technology and new faculty positions, work at the BARI will leapfrog our current knowledge in the field.”

The University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) is exclusively focused on the health sciences and is dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. UCSF Health, which serves as UCSF’s primary academic medical center, includes top-ranked specialty hospitals and other clinical programs, and has affiliations throughout the Bay Area.