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Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist earns APS's Walter B. Cannon Award

BOSTONIn the early 1990s, biomedical researchers interested in finding the causes and cures for diseases, were rapidly narrowing their focus from the broad interconnected regulatory networks of the human body to genes. For many years, these small snippets of genetic information seemed to hold the key toward vastly improving human health.

However, in recent years, there's been a reappraisal, says Mayo Clinic anesthesiologist and exercise researcher Michael Joyner, M.D. His work, concentrating on understanding the mechanisms behind a broad array of biomedical experiences linked with health and disease, including blood pressure, blood flow during exercise, and blood sugar control, and the research efforts of many other scientists are now showing that there are many different ways of regulating key bodily functions. Thus, a single genetic glitch within a human network might not be problematic as other elements in the network adapt and compensate for the glitch. This redundancy vastly complicates what some researchers had hoped might be a series of simple, easy to fix, one-gene problems that would explain most diseases.

In honor of his illuminating work and contributions toward advancing physiology as a field, the American Physiological Society (APS) has selected Dr. Joyner to present the Walter B. Cannon Memorial Lecture at the Experimental Biology 2013 meeting (EB 2013). This lecture is the Society's pre-eminent award lecture and is designed to recognize an outstanding scientist for his or her contributions to the field.

Several Systems, One Goal

Dr. Joyner became interested in physiology and medicine after a lackluster start at the University of Arizona in 1977. "I was a terrible student, almost flunking out of college," he says.

A walk-on athlete on the school's track team, Dr. Joyner was asked to volunteer for a physiology study to examine lactate threshold. After visiting the physiology lab several times, he was hooked. His grades rapidly improved, and he decided to attend medical school so he could continue his research on human subjects. Dr. Joyner is now a practicing anesthesiologist in addition to being an exercise physiology researcher. "Exercise and anesthesiology are two sides of the same coin," he explains. Systems that are activated by exercise are turned off by anesthesia, he says.

Looking at these systems broadly, Dr. Joyner and his colleagues have spent decades delving into the mechanisms behind complex phenomena, such as the controls for blood pressure. Dr. Joyner's work has emphasized that blood pressure comes about through many different components, including systems that reside in the kidney, heart, and brain.

"My blood pressure may be the same as yours, but how we each got there could be very different," he says.

Similarly, by using drugs to systematically block factors associated with increased blood flow to skeletal muscles during exercise, Dr. Joyner and his colleagues have shown that many factors are responsible and each explains only a small percentage of changes in blood flow.

"Each set of experiments highlights the redundancy present in the human body," he adds.

Redundant Systems, Not a Redundant Field

"These are very integrated, multicomponent, redundant systems that defy simple genetic or one-off explanations. These complex responses and interactions are a hallmark of physiology," Dr. Joyner explains.

Increasingly, he adds, researchers are discovering that most human disease follows a similar, many-branched pathway, challenging the idea that genetics holds all the answers. Though many universities' physiology departments shrank or disappeared altogether in the last couple of decades, the need for such multi-directional thinking is inspiring a comeback.

"Two decades ago, physiology was seemingly pass. People thought there was nothing left to learn," he says. "But now we're learning that there's danger in reductionist thinking. Physiology has always been non-reductionist. It's an integrated approach to explain things not explainable through reductionism."

Dr. Joyner will discuss his research and the enduring relevancy of physiology when he presents this year's Cannon Lecture, "Is Physiology Redundant?", on Saturday, April 20, 2013 at 5:30 pm at the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center, Room 210.


Contact: Donna Krupa
Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology

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