Richard Lee, MD: Fighting Aging One Beat at a Time

A look at Richard Lee, MD's research and discovery of GDF11 aimed at aging in the heart.

When two prominent researchers meet for coffee, you never know what breakthrough medical advances might arise. Five years ago, Richard Lee, MD, a cardiologist at Brigham and Women's Hospital, and his good friend Harvard regenerative biologist Amy Wagers, PhD, were talking in a coffee shop when they made the decision to investigate whether the blood of young mice could reverse aging in the hearts of old mice. Their experiments led to the discovery of a protein called GDF11 that can turn back aging in the heart. If all goes well in ongoing experiments, the pair hopes to devise a medication that could treat heart failure in the elderly. “There is an aging-related heart problem that's common in the elderly, and there have been no therapies to treat it,” says Dr. Lee, who is also a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and a professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard. “It's been quite frustrating to the global community, because this form of heart failure is rapidly increasing.” The thickening of the heart walls with aging can cause cardiac failure in humans. Drs. Lee and Wagers postulated that younger mice have more of the GDF-11 protein than older mice, and that the heart ages in part because these levels decrease over time. Their studies revealed that giving older mice the protein can quickly reverse cardiac aging—a finding that has garnered worldwide attention. The researchers have yet to determine whether this protein effects other organs and whether it is applicable to humans, as some findings in mice are relevant to people and some are not. But Dr. Lee remains optimistic. “We're hoping we can move quickly with this, because it is essentially a hormone,” he explains. “If we are successful, that means the time from discovery to therapy could be much faster than for traditional laboratory discoveries.” Dr. Lee, who considers the project one of the most interesting research efforts he has ever been part of, says he grew frustrated at not being able to do much to help his aging patients and the general lack of understanding of heart failure in the elderly. He originally intended to become a full-time cardiologist after completing his residency in 1986 and cardiology fellowship in 1989, both at BWH. But his interest in developing new solutions to benefit patients led him to switch to primarily investigative science about 14 years ago. “I practice medicine about 25 percent of the time now, and I work the rest of the time on problems that I think are relevant to the patients that I see,” he says. His typical day involves working in his BWH lab in Kendall Square, teaching at Harvard College and seeing his patients. He also volunteers at a homeless shelter clinic run by physicians from BWH and MGH. As if that didn't keep him busy enough, Dr. Lee also directs the BWH Regenerative Medicine Center, a new research program established to encourage promising young investigators to move regenerative biology from bench to bedside to help patients. “I'm incredibly proud of the trainees who have come through my lab and have gone off and are doing good things,” Dr. Lee says. “They'll continue to do important research long after I am retired. Most of us are known for the work we do, but it's our students and trainees who will make the difference.”