Internationally known gerontologist Dr. Luigi Ferrucci has been appointed scientific director of the National Institute on Aging.
Beginning his career as a geriatrician and then earning a doctorate in the biology and pathophysiology of aging from the University of Florence, Italy, Ferrucci has long been interested in the aging process.
“Early in medical school,” he says, “it became clear to me that aging played an incredibly important role influencing a person’s health, and that our aging population was going to have a major impact on society in the future.”
His research has been aimed at reducing the burden of disease and disability in older people. He is credited with the discovery that physical and cognitive functional status—not a disease or condition by itself—is the most important measure of health and homeostatic equilibrium in older people.
In 2002, Ferrucci came to the National Institute on Aging’s Intramural Research Program as chief of the longitudinal studies section in the Clinical Research Branch. There, he directs the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging (BLSA), at 53 years one of the world’s longest running studies of normal aging.
Becoming part of NIA’s research staff and director of BLSA nearly a decade ago was a “dream come true,” Ferrucci says. The study has intrigued and inspired him. In his early twenties, while many of his friends were idealizing rock stars and soccer players, Ferrucci recalls, he admired the career and work of Dr. Nathan Shock, BLSA founder and, in the 1940s, chief of the Gerontology Branch at NIH. With his appointment as NIA scientific director, Ferrucci says he feels honored to follow in Shock’s footsteps.
“Dr. Ferrucci has revitalized and reconceptualized NIA’s BLSA based on new paradigms about how we age. I look forward to his bringing the same compassion, dedication and innovation that has characterized his career to this new position of leadership in aging research,” said NIA director Dr. Richard Hodes.
Ferrucci’s multidiscliplinary background forms the basis for some of his goals as scientific director. “I hope to foster more frequent and effective collaboration between scientists conducting basic research and those conducting clinical studies, breaking some of the barriers that inhibit the translation from bench to bedside.” There are opportunities, he has said, to work on projects that “cross the boundaries of our laboratories” in order to enrich the ideas of the institute’s intramural research program.
In his first all-hands session with IRP staff, Ferrucci shared some principles that have guided his career thus far and that he plans to use in his new role. These include excellence in science, learning from failure to improve as a leader and scientist, a strong and hopefully inspirational commitment to the study of aging and the importance of people over “stuff” and ambition. Regarding the latter, he says “this is one of my most important principles in life.”
In addition to his own research, Ferrucci has been a leader in mentoring dozens of scientists and serving as a resource to gerontologists across the institute and beyond. His teaching extends to adjunct professorships at both the University of Maryland School of Medicine and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine’s division of geriatric medicine and gerontology. He has served as editor of the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences since 2005. He is associate editor of the Journal of Cachexia, Sarcopenia and Muscle, on the editorial board of Geriatría y Gerontología (Barcelona, Spain) as well as a reviewer for the Wellcome Trust (London).
Before coming to NIA, Ferrucci was assistant director and coordinator of the Laboratory of Clinical Epidemiology at the National Institute for Research and Care on Aging in Italy.