The Mysteries of Aging: Renã Robinson, Pitt assistant professor of chemistry, targets proteins in her research to determine why we age

Issue Date: 
February 8, 2010
Renã RobinsonRenã Robinson

Why do people age?

Fittingly, Renã Robinson’s interest in aging began around 12 with that simple question. Her query has since matured, looking beyond “Why?” to ask “How?” Robinson, an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh School of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Chemistry, investigates the mechanics of aging at the protein level, studying how the body’s most basic components influence and respond to our physical deterioration.

“As a child, I had a lot of questions about the inherent nature of aging and why it changes us,” Robinson said. “I couldn’t solve that at 12 or 13, of course, but the basic questions are still with me.”

Robinson arrived at Pitt in Fall term 2009 following a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Kentucky. In 2002, while working toward her 2007 PhD degree in analytical chemistry at Indiana University, Robinson did research in the lab of chemistry professor David Clemmer, who was named one of Popular Science magazine’s Brilliant 10 for his work in proteomics.

It was under Clemmer that Robinson adopted her current focus on proteins and aging. She had graduated from the University of Louisville in 2001 with plans to apply her bachelor’s degree in chemistry—with a concentration in business—to designing cosmetics. Her fascination with aging had evolved from her first basic questions to helping people forestall it, at least its physical manifestations.

“When I was working on the project at Indiana, I asked more philosophical questions on aging as I got more interested in the immune system,” Robinson said. “Proteins caught my attention, and I was inspired by this complex connection to aging and disease. Now I’m inspired by working on a problem that is so critical and of such potential benefit.”

Changes in the expression levels of proteins could be part of the answer to why humans age. Proteins are molecular multitaskers and can exist within various networks that carry out major functions in the body, such as enabling communication between cells. But like any large system, a protein network is susceptible to a malfunction of its individual components. A sudden change in the function or expression level of one protein can affect another protein, then another, and soon an entire system may break down, Robinson said. As people age, she continued, certain proteins tend to behave differently, and, to date, research still cannot completely explain why.

“In my laboratory, we study aging by measuring protein levels and looking for proteins that change,” Robinson said. “A possible reason that aging occurs could be due to oxidative stress caused by a buildup of free radicals in the system over time, or there could be an innate, preprogrammed signal that causes the protein to change with aging. If the protein changes, we are trying to figure out to what end.”

Specifically, Robinson studies the connection of proteins to immunosenescence, the immune system breakdown that is associated with age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, heart problems, infections, and possibly cancer. She hopes to understand how the early onset of changes in the immune system alters molecular systems and influences the development of age-related diseases, as well as whether certain changes in protein function forecast these conditions.

Her work involves extracting proteins from tissue, breaking them down into smaller components called peptides, and then tracking the peptides back to the protein to determine the sequence information because unlocking the sequence reveals the protein’s identification and some clues about its role in the overall system. To do this, Robinson brings an analytical technique new to Pitt known as ion mobility spectronomy (IMS) that is coupled with mass spectrometry (MS). Robinson and her lab team will construct a hybrid IMS-MS instrument in Eberley Hall that separates ions based on molecular shape and charge, and then sorts and detects them by mass.

Robinson’s expertise in MS and the instrument she’s constructing will enhance the department’s research capability, said chemistry professor and department chair David Waldeck.

“Renã brings expertise in mass spectrometry research, which is a core need to developing our research profile in analytical chemistry, and her interest in the biochemistry of aging in model systems contributes to our growing profile in biological chemistry,” Waldeck said.

“The instrument she is developing is unique on campus. Only through such technological developments will we be able to ask and answer important questions about biological systems, such as the biochemistry of aging. Most closely related to her MS instrument are the Proteomics Core Lab in the Pitt medical school run by [Professor of Chemistry] Billy Day and our department’s MS support facility for synthetic chemists. Researchers on campus who work in the area of proteomics would find collaborations with Renã and her group valuable.”

Robinson’s work had already been recognized prior to her arrival at Pitt. In 2008, while in Kentucky, Robinson received a two-year, $85,000 Science Initiative Award from the United Negro College Fund and Merck to investigate oxidative stress in a mouse model of immunosenescence following antioxidant treatment.

And while working in Clemmer’s lab at Indiana University, Robinson had developed various proteomics methods to study aging in fruit flies, work that led to the identification of more than 1,600 proteins and revealed that metabolic and defense-response proteins are heavily implicated in aging, she said. Clemmer credited Robinson and his other graduate students for their role in his work.

Now, Robinson hopes her laboratory can motivate students to refine and deeply explore their scientific interests just as she was inspired in Clemmer’s lab.

“I came to Pitt because of the chemistry department’s excellent resources and the exciting research taking place all over campus,” Robinson said. “I have the opportunity to mentor young scientists who want to address complex problems. I felt this is a place where my research will thrive.”