USC Davis School Faculty Win Grants to Explore New Ways to Improve Health

USC Leonard Davis School of Gerontology Research Associate Professor Donna Benton and Research Assistant Professor Kelvin Yen have been named the 2017 recipients of the Hanson-Thorell Family Research Scholarships, awards that support junior faculty members as they explore new avenues of research.

Benton and Yen will each receive $25,000 in funding for one-year pilot projects looking to expand services for unpaid caregivers and explore the role of a newly-discovered mitochondrial peptide. The awards are designed to promote innovative social and life science research, especially projects that have the potential to be converted into major grants.

Benton’s research goal is to develop an intervention program for older and isolated family caregivers in Los Angeles County. Her pilot project will increase data about existing services and identify solutions that providers feel would best meet the needs of this high-risk population.

“Studies demonstrate that caregivers have significant health problems compared to non-caregivers, yet minimal attention has been paid about how to identify and support the most vulnerable members of this group,” said Benton, who also directs the USC Family Caregiver Support Center. “This award allows us to begin to find proven ways to help the individuals providing unpaid and unassisted care to their family members.”

Yen’s grant will seek to better understand humanin, a mitochondrial-derived peptide that has been found to play a role in a number of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Yen, and the Cohen Lab team he is part of, have genetically modified a roundworm to over-express humanin. As a result of this increase, the worm has increased its lifespan by 10 percent. Yen’s research will examine how humanin affects healthspan and the mechanism by which it accomplished this.

“This grant will help propel my mitochondrial research and allow me to start translating these discoveries into higher organisms,” said Yen. “I am honored to receive the Hanson-Thorell award and for the opportunity it offers in exploring how this new research area might eventually help people live longer, healthier lives.”

One of the Hanson-Thorell awards is supported by an endowment set up by former USC Leonard Davis School Board of Councilors Chair Al Hanson that was designed to give junior faculty a start. The second is funded by his daughter, current Board Chair Shari Thorell, and her husband Bob.

“All of our family believes in investing in people who have amazing ideas for new directions in research which have wonderful potential to make a difference in the field,” said Shari Thorell. “I love the fact that my Dad’s original intent of investing in promising researchers continues to be so successful and that the Davis School faculty continues to lead the way in seeking to improve how we live and age.”

Shari and Bob’s two sons, Kirk and Keith, and their wives alternate service on the award selection committee. Past recipients have gone on to secure additional funding in areas including understanding the role diet and genetics in the aging process and how to prevent disparities in health care settings.

“My wife, Brooke, and I are honored to have a role in continuing to fulfill my grandfather’s vision of supporting researchers in the Leonard Davis School,” said Kirk Thorell. “It was exciting to see the volume of award applications and fascinating to read the innovative ideas of the school’s faculty. We are also thrilled that, with my parent’s support, we had the opportunity to support both the biological and social sciences as research in both areas is essential to all of our futures.”