The Ellison Medical Foundation (EMF) has named two Yale scientists Senior Scholars in Aging, an award that recognizes creative and productive research into processes that affect lifespan and age-related diseases and disabilities.

Frank J. Slack, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, and Sandra L. Wolin, M.D., Ph.D., professor of cell biology and of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, will each receive $150,000 per year for four years to support their research.

Slack studies the role of microRNAs, or miRNAs, short strands of genetic material that act as “switches,” orchestrating development and aging by activating or shutting down patterns of gene expression over time. In research on the microscopic roundworm C. elegans, Slack and his colleagues have elucidated how two miRNAs known as lin-4 and let-7 ensure that organs emerge at their proper time during the worm’s development. Slack has also shown that the miRNA let-7, which he discovered as a postdoctoral associate at Harvard Medical School, is poorly expressed in human lung cancers, a finding that has led him to propose that many cancers may be caused by dysfunctions in miRNA regulation over the lifespan.

Slack joined the Yale faculty in 2000 after doctoral work in molecular biology at Tufts University School of Medicine and postdoctoral training at Stanford University School of Medicine and at Harvard. He is a member of Yale Cancer Center.

Wolin studies how RNA molecules fold into intricate shapes inside the cell and how a protein known as Ro binds RNAs that have been misfolded. She and her research team have shown that RNA binding by Ro helps cells survive damage from ultraviolet radiation.

They also found that mice lacking Ro develop an autoimmune disease that resembles lupus, indicating that the normal function of Ro could be important for preventing autoimmunity.

Damaged small RNAs have been detected in the brains of aging animals and patients with neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. With the help of the Senior Scholar in Aging award, Wolin hopes to identify genes involved in detecting and degrading damaged RNAs and to determine how they may contribute to aging and neurodegeneration.

Wolin joined the medical school faculty in 1991. She received her M.D. and her Ph.D. degree in molecular biophysics and biochemistry from Yale, and completed her postdoctoral training at the University of California, San Francisco. She is also a member of the Yale Cancer Center.

The Bethesda, Md.-based EMF was created by Lawrence J. Ellison, founder and chief executive officer of software giant Oracle Corporation, and Joshua Lederberg, Ph.D., who received his doctoral degree at Yale and went on to share the 1958 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his studies of genetic recombination.