Aging has a profound impact on the body’s organs, tissues and cells. Indeed, it’s the greatest risk factor for chronic lung disease and many other debilitating conditions. As the years pile up, so does a progressive decline that may begin as early as young adulthood. New chief of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at Feinberg, Scott Budinger, MD, stands at the vanguard of highly collaborative research to pinpoint aging’s effects and explore potential interventions at the molecular level.

“We tend to think of aging as an inevitable risk factor,” says Budinger, who was appointed division chief last spring. “But what we’re understanding now is that aging is a biologic program that unfolds over time. And it’s something that we might be able to intervene in.”

Working closely with other leading basic and clinical scientists at Northwestern, including Jacob Sznajder, MD, Navdeep Chandel, PhD, Richard Morimoto, PhD, Harris Perlman, PhD, Douglas Vaughan, MD, as well as William Balch, PhD, at the Scripps Research Institute, Budinger aims to improve older patients’ quality of life.

Scott Budinger, MD

Scott Budinger, MD

“Quantity of life is a potentially important goal, but the more immediate goal is aging well ‒ increasing ‘health span’ rather than lifespan,” explains Budinger, who is also a professor of Medicine and of Cell and Molecular Biology. His research has been continually funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) since 2001.

The principal investigator of a new project funded by the NIH National Institute on Aging, he is using mouse models to test whether dysfunction in the lung’s proteostasis network causes age-related susceptibility to influenza A infection. This network consists of the integrated pathways within cells that regulate the proper folding and degradation of proteins, maintaining them in a functional state.

Budinger’s investigation builds on research Morimoto has conducted on worms. “Rick found that after worms have their first progeny, a signal from the gamete cell triggers a systematic decline in the function of the protein-folding network over the lifespan of the animal,” he says. “We are essentially looking at the same thing in mice and in people.”

At every six months in the mouse lifespan, starting at two weeks of age and ending near the point of death two years later, Budinger and his team are examining 25 different tissues, assessing the protein-folding network’s functioning and attempting to extrapolate the findings to human physiology using biological computational modeling.

“Scott’s work on aging is really cutting edge,” emphasizes Perlman, Northwestern’s chief of Rheumatology and one of Budinger’s collaborators. “He is trying to make a genetic map of aging processes in all of the tissues of the body. He is doing that in mice and he’s going to translate that to patients.”

At Northwestern, Budinger has been a champion of transcriptional profiling, the development of a molecular understanding of biological processes at the genome (DNA), transcriptome (mRNA), proteome and metabolic pathway levels. Says Perlman, “This is a new push for our school, and it will revolutionize a lot of the work people are doing for biopsies.”

Joining the Feinberg faculty 16 years ago, Budinger, who is 51, earned a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from Northwestern in 1985 before attending medical school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He completed his residency and fellowship at the University of Chicago Hospitals. His engineering background has served him well throughout his career. “It was really useful to me in medical school and even more useful in developing a research program afterwards,” Budinger shares. “Engineering is a ‘how to do it’ kind of field, whereas biology focuses on ‘what are the right questions?’ Combining both approaches is a good path to success.”

Enthusiastic, Generous Leader

With some 65 published original investigations to his name, including many as lead author, Budinger is a tireless scientist. He is also a thoughtful, helpful colleague and a valuable mentor to many trainees and faculty members.

“Besides being a great scientist, Scott is a really great person,” Perlman says. “He’s very giving.”

For example, with an excellent track record in obtaining funding, Budinger often volunteers to critique his colleagues’ grant applications. “I can’t tell you how many grants he has read for my group and other groups,” says Perlman. “As late as midnight, he’ll be going through your grant and really help you on it. Not a lot of people would do that.”

Succeeding Jacob Sznajder, MD, who stepped down after 17 years as division chief to develop new research programs for Northwestern, Budinger plans to build on his predecessor’s impressive legacy. He hopes to develop an integrated respiratory care program for patients, featuring a comprehensive center that will bring together many specialists under one roof to offer convenient, accessible care. The center would also teleconference with patients’ primary care physicians.

“Rather than patients sorting through the medical system themselves, we want to provide coordinated care that is based on their disease,” Budinger explains. “It takes physicians who are willing to work together. Fortunately, at Northwestern, we have very collaborative faculty who are willing to work toward a common goal.”