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- In Memory
Featured Researcher: Caleb E. Finch, Ph.D.
Each quarter we feature a researcher who has been instrumental to Cure Alzheimer’s Fund’s mission. These profiles tell their story—their background, their passions and the strides they’re making on the Alzheimer’s front. This quarter we are featuring Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Scientific Advisory Board member Caleb “Tuck” Finch, Ph.D., professor of gerontology and biological sciences, University of Southern California.
Caleb Finch was born in London in 1939 to American parents. After his father died from tuberculosis, his mother, Faith, moved the family to the small, blue-collar town of Katonah, just outside of New York City. Finch’s interest in science became evident pretty early on.
“Friends of our family were scientists, and the father of one of my classmates was a distinguished chemist, Lawrence Knox, who was African American. Yale University had a research lab on a country estate where Knox was doing fundamental organic chemistry, and I got a chance to hang around that lab.”
One summer in high school Finch observed Knox making the seven-membered aromatic ring called tropylium. “I didn’t understand but the faintest whiff of what was going on,” he says, but he got an exciting glimpse at frontier science that would lead him to his future.
Finch went on to study biophysics at Yale. “My time there was very important to my career,” explains Finch. “Yale’s novel biophysics program was led by brilliant young physicists who were asking questions that traditional biologists didn’t typically ask, such as: ‘What is life?’ ‘What is development?’ ‘What is aging?’ ” As a freshman, Finch had a lab scholarship job in the biophysics department. “They took me under their wing as a greenhorn and I was privileged to join the discussion,” adds Finch. “It provided a completely different venue from the idiotic dorm conversations. I realized from conversations with Carl Woese that there was some serious science to be done on the topic of aging.”
After graduating from Yale in 1961, Finch continued his work in cell biology and went on to pursue his Ph.D. at The Rockefeller University. There, he formulated a problem of neuroendocrinology of aging that led him to his brain work. In 1969, Finch published his first fundamental paper on the neurobiology of aging, and he knew he had found his career.
Focus on Alzheimer’s
Three years later, Finch left the East Coast for the University of Southern California to start a program in biogerontology. “My family has always had very long-lived people who have been very sharp well into their 90s and 100s, so it was a puzzle to me to encounter people much younger who were failing mentally,” says Finch. This question triggered his interest in the basic neurobiology of aging. When the field of Alzheimer’s opened up in the 1980s, Finch was on the forefront of research, breaking new ground.
In 1983, he founded and became the first director of the NIH-funded Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “In studying clusterin (ApoJ), an inflammatory protein whose mRNA we cloned from AD brains, we discovered in 1994–5 that clusterin blocked the formation of Abeta fibrils. Instead, to our surprise, clusterin caused Abeta to form oligomers that were more toxic than the amyloid fibrils that were then thought to be the main culprit,” says Finch. Subsequently, clusterin gene variants were found by Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Consortium members to be an Alzheimer’s risk factor.
In 1989, USC named Finch as one of its 12 “University Distinguished Professors.” Since then he has received many of the major awards in biomedical gerontology and has co-authored 450 scientific papers and four books, most recently The Biology of Human Longevity in 2007.
Cure Alzheimer’s Fund
“I met Rudy Tanzi, Ph.D., when he was a graduate student,” he says, “and I’ve had a long-term dialogue with Rudy and many others of my esteemed colleagues, who are now part of the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund Research Consortium.” Finch joined Cure Alzheimer’s Fund’s Scientific Advisory Board a few years ago. The SAB’s role is to preserve the “scientific integrity” of research proposals and ensure they fit within the organization’s mission statement and roadmap. “My role as a member is to review grants and share ideas,” says Finch.
Today, Finch’s research lab at USC continues to train graduate and post-doctoral students for the next generation of research. “I’m interested in the role of the environment and the outcomes of brain aging, in particular how air pollution particles interact with brain aging and Alzheimer’s disease.” (For more information, click here.)
When Finch is not working he enjoys walking on mountain trails, listening to music and reading books. He taught himself how to play the fiddle and used to be part of an Appalachian string band, which he says was a “beloved part of my nonscientific life for four decades.” His fiddling can be heard on Folkways-Smithsonian albums of the Iron Mountain String Band. His wife, Doris, is a fabric artist and they have a grown son, Alex. “Southern California is a fabulous place to live,” he says. “You can make a good life wherever you are, but this area is extremely rich in science, art and opportunities for top-level intellectual exchange.”
An eye toward the future
Despite the fact that Finch is in his mid-70s, he has no plans to retire. “I’m moving full-speed ahead,” he says, clearly fueled by his work. He and his colleagues are driven by two questions—How did Alzheimer’s emerge in evolution, since humans are the only primates to suffer Alzheimer’s disease with severe neurodegeneration? And why do identical twins show so much variability in terms of when they get the disease (up to 20 years apart) even though they have the same genes?
Dr. Finch is determined to find the answers.