Cloquet native studies 'coming of age'
When Dr. Nathan LeBrasseur was a student at Cloquet High School, he was interested in both medicine and law - but he wasn't certain just where he was headed with either.
"I think if anyone had asked me when I was 17 what I was going to do with my life, I probably wouldn't have had the answer back then. I would have been pulling at straws," he admitted. "But things just kind of worked out. During my life I have been fortunate to have good mentors, but I've also sought out good mentors and that's been fundamental to my success."
Today, at the age of 39, the Cloquet native is a key player on a multi-faceted team of some 140 researchers at Rochester's Mayo Clinic whose ground-breaking studies may one day change the face of aging. So critical is their work, in fact, that LeBrasseur and the research team were featured in a recent issue of The Wall Street Journal. And just this week, they published a landmark study in the journal "Nature" that received world-wide press coverage.
LeBrasseur is quick to acknowledge that his current success can be traced as far back as his years at Cloquet High School.
"I really took to the sciences," he said, "and found I enjoyed the concept of understanding the integration of organ systems and how the body controls various processes. I would say that seed was probably planted and encouraged by [Cloquet High School science teacher] Len Anderson. He challenged us to think critically, which is one of the key facets of my job now, as well as discovering the excitement of science and the importance of being naturally curious. That really underlies my success as a scientist now - asking important questions and fulfilling my curiosity."
The other person LeBrasseur gave credit to as one of his early mentors was Cloquet High School English teacher John Buytaert.
"I never realized it at the time," he said, "but I learned more from him about writing than anywhere else. I remember many clear messages and teachings from his classroom that still influence me today."
LeBrasseur was born in Cloquet and attended Cloquet schools throughout the majority of his school years.
"I very much enjoyed growing up in the Northland," he acknowledged, "and now that I have children of my own, I was partly drawn back to Minnesota because of that positive experience."
He is part of a large family, many of whom still live in the Cloquet area, including the Kantonens on his mother's side as well as the LeBrasseurs on his father's side.
"When I was in high school, we had a family tradition of running," he stated. "And so, I ran track and cross country. I was also involved in other activities such as Mock Trial. There were a lot of good opportunities as I was growing up there."
LeBrasseur graduated from high school in 1991 and spent his undergraduate years at Boston University, where he completed a combined bachelor's/master's program in physical therapy.
Following his graduation from Boston University, he practiced at George Washington University Medical Center for nearly two years. During that time he was contacted by a former professor at Boston University, Roger Fielding, who invited him back to pursue a Ph.D. under his direction.
"He gave me some opportunities in my graduate studies to get exposed to research, and I really kind of got the itch then for a career in that field," said LeBrasseur.
He started his Ph.D. program in 1998 and then did a fellowship in molecular medicine at Boston Medical Center, and another with a diabetes group.
"My fellowship years were really about improving the skill sets that I had in order to do the type of work that I do now," he said, "which involves the concept of translational research -
taking ideas from the bench where we work with cells and mice and things of that nature and use them to understand how the body works in
order to impact clinical care and the practice of medicine."
LeBrasseur said it was really important for him, after earning his Ph.D., to develop the skills not only to do human research but to advance the understanding of what he called "the biological underpinnings" of how cells and organs work and how new drugs and therapies can be developed to combat disease.
To that end, when he was an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine, he began doing some intriguing work with mice to find ways to prevent muscles from declining as they age.
"We took what was clinically relevant and then translated those observations to studies in humans," he explained.
And so, when the opportunity came to continue that research at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he jumped at the opportunity.
"No one would argue that Mayo Clinic is probably the world's premier institution for doing clinical trials," he said, "- testing the benefits as well as the risks of emerging therapies. A lot of places do good science, but to really practice good medicine you need to be in an institution and in a setting that allows you to have access to patients. It's an incredible center where all of the infrastructure is in place to do the type of work that I desire to do. It's a one-of-a-kind opportunity."
LeBrasseur came to Mayo Clinic in June 2010 and found it to be all that he dreamed it would be - and more.
"The beauty of Mayo Clinic is that in clinical practice, education and research, there's an integrated approach that really sets Mayo apart from other places. It's a team of scientists and physicians who take care of you and who integrate in a way that no other institutions do to tackle problems from multiple angles. I think that's what sets us apart and allows us to advance the science faster than most places."
LeBrasseur is now part of Mayo's Robert and Arlene Kogod Center on Aging, conducting research on delaying aging and the diseases that restrict the quality of life.
"One in five individuals in the entire northern hemisphere will soon be over the age of 65," he related. "That's just daunting. You can look at that from a number of angles. We look at it from the medical angle, but if you look at it from the social or the economics angle, this is really a serious
epidemic that we are probably ill-equipped to handle.
"The issue is that aging is the primary risk factor for most chronic illnesses," he continued. "If you were to do something about the mechanisms of aging, you could potentially prevent the onset of most of these diseases, whether it be Alzheimer's disease, heart failure, kidney failure, or most any of the maladies that we face in late life. It's a real fundamental change to science in terms of really trying to understand why aging occurs and when it does, why it leads to so many different problems. I think our approach is unique and I think it is going to have an incredibly powerful impact on the future of health."
LeBrasseur hastened to clarify that they're not talking about discovering a fountain of youth but instead, of equalizing a person's health span with their chronological life span.
He said the part of their research that's closest on the horizon involves finding ways to prevent changes in cells that lead to changes in organs, which in turn are viewed as triggers for the disease processes.
"The idea of reversing damage in cells is the challenge of regenerative medicine," he said. "That gets a little bit tricky, but in my mind that's not really reversing aging. It involves repair mechanisms for organs or tissues that are aging."
The research group's latest findings just released this week, for example, reveal how a category of cells known as senescent cells have been found to promote the aging of tissues.
The Mayo Clinic researchers reported having generated a genetically altered strain of mice in which all the senescent cells could be purged by giving the mice a drug that forces the cells to self-destruct. As a result, the mice did not develop such conditions as cataracts and age-related muscle wasting, they could exercise much longer on a mouse treadmill and they retained fat layers in the skin that usually thin out with age and cause
Though the report states the gene-altering approach cannot be used with human beings, the information that senescent cells can turn harmful will give researchers grounds for developing ways of targeting them to reduce their effect on aging.
LeBrasseur said there's evidence to suggest that intervention in the late 30s and early 40s is what they're going to have to pursue to really impact aging, which could take some time before it goes from the research lab into mainstream
In the meantime, he added, diet and exercise are two things that can influence people's health in late life right now.
"It's so important and you can't start too early," he said. "Most of us have witnessed the powers of exercise in terms of our health, our happiness and our fitness."
LeBrasseur said he tries to practice what he preaches and he works out daily. He is also confident that the lessons he's learning- and the research he's doing - will yield long-term benefits for his and wife Tracy's own daughters, Zoe, 6, and Samantha, 3.
"I think it's important for people to consider how good research really drives better medicine," he reflected. "I think there needs to be a continued effort to support research endeavors and develop the next generation of scientists. In this digital age, the concept of kids being born into technology is really fascinating to me, along with how those innovations in technology influence education and training. I would think it's time for the school districts to take that into consideration for developing the next generation."
LeBrasseur is excited about the research he and fellow researchers are pursuing at Mayo, and he' confident it will improve the process of aging.
"The biggest change in my mind is that even two years ago most people would say that's science fiction," he related. "Today, we now have evidence that we can actually do it. Right now it might just be in fruit flies, but it's evidence that we can do it and that's very promising. We are not really interested in adding years to life - but in adding new life to the years that we have."