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Fourteen years ago, Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics Se-Jin Lee discovered myostatin, a protein that inhibits muscle growth. Some nutritional supplement companies have appropriated the term myostatin to sell bodybuilding products. But Lee sees a larger public health need.
Did you start out in science wanting to study molecular aspects of muscles?
LEE: No, not directly. I earned an M.D./Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins but always wanted to pursue research. I’ve long been interested, fundamentally, in finding ways to understand and treat human disease.
As a young investigator, I was drawn to a large gene family called the TGF-beta superfamily, which included several genes that had been linked to disease.
We cloned a number of the genes. One turned out to be myostatin. We planned to work on other molecules in this family, but once the myostatin story became apparent, we began focusing all our attention on it.
Your discovery of myostatin has received enormous press coverage. How has the press done, in general, in reporting on your research?
LEE: I’d anticipated it would be a negative thing—all with an emphasis on its potential abuse. But I’ve found that most in the press present a balanced view. And I always say to reporters that I’m happy to talk as long as they make clear the goal of our research is not improved bodybuilding; it’s to help in disease.
But there have also been bodybuilding magazines that have run ads for supplements that supposedly block the myostatin pathway and get muscles to grow. There is no scientific backing to those claims.
What motivates you now when you go into the lab?
LEE: I would like to figure out ways to block the activity of the myostatin pathway to find drugs that could help in treating muscular disease. I’ve become more and more impatient about getting something to the finish line. Anything I can help to move that process along is my priority. At the end of the day, I want to see a practical medical application.
The societal consequences of aging-related muscle loss alone will be significant. By 2030, the number of Americans over 65 will be almost double what it is now. As people get older, less able to live independently, the impact on society is enormous. The way I look at it, if we can keep people living independently for longer, the impact will be huge.
Do you have any thoughts on how to expedite that translation from bench to bedside?
LEE: Every day I ask, how is this experiment relevant to that goal? I try to make decisions based on that. If it’s not an essential question, I don’t need to pursue it.
How much time do you spend at the bench?
LEE: A lot. I spend virtually 90 percent of my time [here] with gloves on. I do what any person in the lab does—tissue culture, grow cells, Southern blots, tail biopsies.
There are lots of practical things that are hard to appreciate unless you’re [physically] doing them.
Don’t you devote time to writing grants and papers?
LEE: I do that, too, but outside of the lab, after hours. But when I’m in the lab, I’m doing lab work. Fundamentally, it’s the only thing I’ve been trained to do. And I really enjoy it.
--Interviewed by Melissa Hendricks