Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center: Training New Researchers on Aging

Ben Boulden

For research on aging to continue to advance, scientists dedicated to understanding the aging process have to be around to do the research.

Among the main goals of the Arkansas Claude D. Pepper Older Americans Independence Center at UAMS is training new geriatricians and gerontologists to find the answers that will result in the continued independence and improved function of older Arkansans.

Because monetary compensation during a career in geriatrics may be somewhat lower than that in some other medical specialties, and because of the increasing cost of a medical education, recruiting new junior faculty and research fellows can sometimes be a challenge, said Jeanne Wei, M.D., Ph.D., director of the UAMS Donald W. Reynolds Institute on Aging, which is home to the center.

“The Pepper Center allows us to have the biostatistical, technical and laboratory support for junior faculty.”

“Geriatrics won’t reward you with the highest salary, but it will reward you richly otherwise,” Wei said. “The people who choose geriatrics are very happy because they are highly rewarded in terms of the amazing patients who are in their care and from whom they learn so much. Geriatricians rank first in terms of professional happiness.”

In 2011, the institute received a five-year $5.5 million grant from the National Institute on Aging to fund the Pepper Center. Its focus is on developing new interventions for the maintenance of functional independence and the prevention and treatment of skeletal and heart muscle weakness.

Gohar Azhar, M.D., and Robert Wolfe, Ph.D., both have made advances in these areas. Along with Wei, they have mentored and cultivated younger scientists interested in the field.

“We are very pleased with our research scientists, fellows and junior faculty who have come through the Pepper Center,” Wei said. “This will hopefully be a longtime pursuit for them once they become academic faculty and/or choose to practice geriatrics.”

Wolfe said the Pepper Center’s effort in training new geriatricians extends beyond the Little Rock campus of UAMS to central and northwest Arkansas and to Oklahoma.

The trainees also receive guidance on how to write a research protocol, prepare a grant application and other aspects of research training.

“The Pepper Center allows us to have the biostatistical, technical and laboratory support for junior faculty who wish to pursue a relevant geriatrics question that interests them and to find the answers,” Wei said. 

For example, Wei and Suzanne Klimberg, M.D., are working with Valentina Todorova, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the UAMS College of Medicine Department of Surgery, on developing new ways to screen cancer patients to determine if they are at increased risk for developing heart failure if they receive chemotherapy. Klimberg is director of the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute Breast Cancer Program and a UAMS professor of surgery and pathology.

The No. 1 risk factor for most cases of both cancer and heart failure is advancing age, Wei said.

It may be possible to develop a better therapeutic regimen that is specific to that patient’s condition if clinicians could know the patient’s specific risk factors in advance.

Researchers like Todorova as well as other young scientists in the Pepper Center are pursuing grants, getting research reports published and obtaining additional funding. They are working to ensure that Americans and Arkansans with long pasts will continue to have bright futures.