Doug Wallace — director of the Center for Mitochondrial and Epigenomic Medicine at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute, and the 2017 winner of the Dr. Paul Janssen Award — has been studying mitochondria and their DNA for fifty years. More than anyone he understands the importance of mitochondria. “They generate more than 90% of cellular energy,” he says. “Anything that generates that much energy can't be trivial.”
And yet mitochondria, for all the energy they contribute, have been largely overlooked in medicine. “All the clinical subspecialties are based primarily around anatomy, and so you have neurologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, nephrologists, dermatologists and so on, but that model doesn't take into account mitochondria,” says Wallace. “Since different organs rely on mitochondrial energy to different extents, partial mitochondrial defects result in organ-specific symptoms.”
That's now changing. Led by Wallace, scientists are now digger deeper into the role mitochondrial disease might play in many of our most pervasive diseases and even into aging itself. The idea is nothing short of a paradigm shift, viewing energy broadly rather than organs specifically. And if Wallace is right, that idea could change millions of lives for the better.
In the past, scientists have frequently looked to nuclear DNA for answers about disease and aging, but Wallace believes mitochondrial DNA could be the missing link that can steer them toward new understandings about disease, and potentially, new therapies.