Jan Vijg met more ridicule than resistance in his drive to study aging. “I was heavily criticized. A friend said I was stupid for doing it. There was no profit in it. Nobody’s doing it. But I was immediately interested in the possibility that aging is related to DNA damage,” Vijg explained.
Pursuit of that possibility has taken Vijg from The Netherlands, where he trained in biology and biochemistry at the University of Leiden, to the post of Chairman of Genetics now at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, of Yeshiva University in the Bronx, N.Y.
Along the way, Vijg was founder of a small biotechnology firm in Holland, was a faculty member doing research (on aging) at the Harvard Medical School, then on to the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, the Buck Institute for Age Research in the San Francisco Bay Area, and finally to New York.
Although neither of his parents had interests in science – his father was a house painter, his father’s death from cancer is one factor that sparked Vijg’s interest in the biosciences. “I started to get interested in cancer and why it couldn’t be cured,” he recalled. After working on aging and genetics for four years in The Netherlands, Vijg received his Ph.D. in biochemistry at the University of Leiden in 1987.
Early in his career in The Netherlands, Vijg said, he was greatly inspired by a lecture given by the late Roy Walford, from UCLA. In addition to his respected work on the biology of aging, Walford was experimenting on himself, severely restricting his own diet to see – as shown with laboratory animals – whether minimizing calorie intake might prolong life.
Spurred by Walford’s enthusiasm, Vijg said “I got really involved in aging research, and gave a journal club talk” on the subject at Leiden. He then did much of his subsequent advanced research at a small experimental gerontology research center near The Hague, where it had been shown that exposure to ionizing radiation can shorten the lifespan of rats and mice.
Then came an invitation from Harvard, asking if he’d move to the U.S. to teach and do research. “I told them I would come in three years, if they still wanted me. I signed a contract to run my company, Ingeny, for three years, and then I moved to Harvard in 1993, where I helped to develop a Nathan Shock Center of Excellence in the Basic Biology of Aging, one of five such NIH-funded centers in the U.S.
Next came the move to Texas, for exciting new research possibilities with the renowned aging research group in San Antonio. His wife, Claudia Gravekamp, made all these moves with him. Her research focuses on developing cancer vaccines, especially vaccines that would be effective in elderly people who may have impaired immunity.
Now at Einstein, in New York, as Chair of the Department of Genetics, Vijg said, “my main task is to greatly expand the department and move closer to clinical and translational research. Aging is one of our main foci, and I’m still interested in the possibility that we age because, with time, our genome falls apart.” Working from that perspective, Vijg is seeking clues to the basic mechanisms of aging, how to postpone aging and disease, and eventually to cure aging.
“There’s no scientific reason that we know about why aging cannot be cured,” he said, “and in that sense it’s not different from cancer.”