Allison Elliott-Shannon


College: Medicine

Van Eldik Combines Research, Administration in Leadership Role at Sanders-Brown

Published: Nov 30, 2012

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Nov. 30, 2012) -- Linda J. Van Eldik is at the forefront of the crusade to help a growing population of older adults age in healthy ways. She helms the University of Kentucky Sanders-Brown Center on Aging (SBCoA), home to the federally-funded UK Alzheimer's Disease Center (ADC). She also maintains a vibrant career as a basic science researcher investigating the role of inflammation in Alzheimer's disease.


In February 2010, Van Eldik arrived at UK as the successor to long-time SBCoA director, the late Dr. William Markesbery. Having established a strong reputation as a researcher and administrator at Northwestern University, Van Eldik brought with her a wealth of research support and initiatives. She took the reins of an established center with a long history of work in the field of aging - particularly the fight against Alzheimer's disease. She also immediately launched into the process of applying for renewed federal funding for the ADC.


SBCoA was established in 1979. The ADC first received federal funding in 1985, as one of ten original ADCs established by the federal government. In 2011 the UK ADC received renewed funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), marking its 26th consecutive year of federal funding.


"I try to be a leader, not simply a manager," said Van Eldik, who heads up a faculty and staff coalition of more than 100 individuals.


"What I say is 'here is where we want to go - now let's all decide how to get there'. I'm there to provide guidance if I'm needed, but I want to empower people to take the ball and run."

When asked what drew her to UK and SBCoA, the scientist mentions qualities like collegiality, collaboration and interactivity.


"[Collaboration is] the tradition here, it's what SBCoA does. Plus the resources to study Alzheimer's are unparalleled here," said Van Eldik.


As an undergraduate at Calvin College in Michigan, Van Eldik took an independent research course in the state parks of Florida. There, she "fell in love with biology and the life sciences."


After graduation from Calvin with a degree in biology, Van Eldik completed a doctorate at Duke University in microbiology and immunology. It was there that she became interested in neuroscience through her study of S100, a calcium-binding protein.


"It was sort of serendipity that the S100 protein turned out to be produced in glial cells, and can act as an activator of pro-inflammatory molecules in the brain," said Van Eldik.

S100 is also found in high levels in the cerebrospinal fluid of individuals with early stage Alzheimer's. The protein is a potential biomarker of early-stage Alzheimer's, as its levels peak early in the disease, then fall back off as the disease progresses.


Van Eldik's research is focused on inflammation. Normally, inflammation fights off infection and injuries, and protects the body and brain. However, in acute injuries or chronic diseases like Alzheimer's, inflammation pathways are dysregulated and detrimental responses occur. Van Eldik is working to come up with small molecule drugs to dampen neurological inflammation. So far, she says, potential therapies appear to work well in animal models of Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury and epilepsy - all conditions associated with inflammation.


"Dysregulated inflammation is important in many diseases," said Van Eldik. "It's not just a response, but a driver of the pathology. Damaged or dysfunctional nerve cells trigger glial cells to mobilize into inflammation, which leads to more nerve damage, which triggers the glia, and so on in a cycle."


Van Eldik continued her research during a postdoctoral fellowship at Rockefeller University in New York, then launched a faculty career at Vanderbilt University and then Northwestern that sent her along a dual research-and-administration track. She has also mentored a number of young scientists. Since 1984, she has had 27 postdoctoral and seven predoctoral trainees.

As the director of SBCoA, Van Eldik continues to nurture talent. The center is in a period of growth right now, so recruitment is top of mind for its leaders.


"The mission is to bring in faculty working on translational neuroscience, someone to take new knowledge and translate it into interventions...we want someone who can come to UK and immediately synergize with other researchers," she said.


Overall, the split life of administrator and scientist seems to suit Van Eldik, who looks equally at home in her laboratory space as she does leading a faculty meeting or greeting guests at the center's annual dinner. She is active in all facets of the center, from development and community relations to budget oversight and advertising.


Asked to sum up her experience at SBCoA so far, she simply says "I'm having a blast."

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