Mitochondria power cellular function, but they energize the research of Anthony Molina, PhD, assistant professor of gerontology and geriatric medicine at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, in a different sort of way.
Molina—who was recently recognized as the People’s Choice Award winner, the top technology prize at Wake Forest Innovations’ Open Thinking showcase—has dedicated his research efforts and career to the study of mitochondria, in part by developing a blood-based diagnostic to monitor mitochondrial function and healthy aging.
Eric Tomlinson, DSc, PhD, chief innovation officer at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, presents the 2016 Open Thinking People’s Choice Award to Anthony Molina, PhD
“Mitochondrial decline is associated with age-related diseases and disorders and is intrinsic to the aging process itself,” explained Molina. “If we can quantify mitochondrial function, we can better understand the aging process, improve early diagnosis of age-related diseases and support the provision of more personalized health care.”
Molina took a circuitous path to his current line of research. He studied marine biology as an undergraduate student at the University of California, Los Angeles and then completed a doctorate in neuroscience at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a research fellowship in ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School. It was during his research fellowship at Boston University Medical Center that he began studying mitochondria.
“It was clear that these organelles had broad applications to all aspects of human health and that mitochondrial bioenergetics was re-emerging as a prominent field of research. While I didn’t necessarily have commercialization in mind, I wanted to develop a diagnostic tool that could expand the scope of my research. It is now apparent that such a diagnostic could significantly improve the health care of older adults.”
Since then, Molina has done just that with his blood-based assay for measuring systemic bioenergetic capacity—the body’s potential to generate chemical energy. Respirometric analyses of multiple circulating cell types is used to generate a bioenergetic profile that is representative of an individual’s mitochondrial health. Molina says this valuable tool can support personalized health care decisions for older adults by assessing patient risk for age-related diseases, predicting recovery from medical interventions and testing the efficacy of certain treatments.
Anthony Molina, PhD, presenting at the 2016 Open Thinking showcase.
Molina credits collaborative innovation for the success of his technology and recalls the ideas for potential clinical applications really taking shape during a breakfast with Jeff Williamson, MD, section head of geriatrics.
“It was a conversation between me, a pure basic scientist at the time, and an experienced geriatrician. He really got me to understand how to think about my research in a more translational way and see the clinical implications of how it could help his patients. It’s been quite a trip since then.”
Molina’s research continues to gain traction with outside funding support from the National Institutes of Health/National Institute on Aging and the American Heart Association.
Internally, the Center for Technology Innovation & Commercialization at Wake Forest Innovations is working with Molina to accelerate his project. The Center awarded Molina a Commercialization Pathway Award—funds available to basic science projects that demonstrate commercial viability—to develop his non-invasive, blood-based assay and gather the data needed to submit a patent application.
“Molina’s research is an ideal project for our Center to support,” says Jason Kralic, assistant vice president of technology innovation at the Center. “This diagnostic opens up new opportunities for studying disease onset and progression and could have implications for a broad array of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s disease. The commercial interest in mitochondrial targets for age-related issues is exploding.”
To develop interventions for these kinds of diseases, it is necessary to have a reliable assay of mitochondrial function. Traditional tissue-based assessments are invasive and limited. Molina’s technology addresses the unmet need of a non-invasive, reliable measure of mitochondrial function.
“Wake Forest Innovations collaborates with faculty and staff to translate their innovative ideas into solutions that improve health, and Molina’s work could do just that,” Kralic adds.
With his blood-based diagnostic on the cusp of commercialization, the Open Thinking showcase was an opportunity to test the idea on an industry audience. “Being recognized at Open Thinking is a validation that our research is valued by fellow scientists as well as business and community audiences,” said Molina. “At the end of the day, it lets me know we are on the right track.”
We couldn’t agree more.