Dr. Veronica Galvan Alzheimer's diseas research at the UT Health Science Center focuses on rapamycin. She studies aging effects at the Barshop Institute Longevity Aging Studies

Sister, sage, scientist

Monday, August 18, 2014by Will Sansom

Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., who studies the biology of Alzheimer’s disease at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, learned lessons early in life from Sister Valeria McCarthy, a nun who was also a scientist.

As a young student in Buenos Aires, Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., encountered a woman of faith who had a passion for science. Sister Valeria McCarthy, born in Ireland, had been assigned by her congregation, the Sisters of Mercy, to one of their schools in Buenos Aires, Argentina. An accomplished scientist, Sister Valeria earned three Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) degrees from Ivy League universities, the last, an honorary doctorate when she was in her 60s. She traveled throughout South America, collecting specimens for her research that were housed at the natural sciences and anthropology museums in the Our Lady of Mercy School of Buenos Aires. She curated and directed these museums. “Her butterfly collection was the second-most complete in the country, next to that in the prominent Natural Sciences Museum in Buenos Aires,” Dr. Galvan recalls. “She also had a beetle collection that was incredible, in addition to birds and mammals, and jars of all sorts of specimens, adult as well as in various stages of development. The school’s museum was a complete collection showcasing life in all its varied forms.”

Dr. Galvan is the only daughter of a naval engineer and a housewife, both of whom are strong advocates for education. They sent her to Our Lady of Mercy from kindergarten through the 12th grade. The people who taught in the secondary school included mathematicians, chemists, historians, journalists and writers with faculty appointments at the University of Buenos Aires who had extra jobs teaching at the school. Similar to many other schools in Buenos Aires, it was an incredibly enriching academic environment.

“I helped Sister Valeria with the collection and many other tasks in the museums, the chemistry and the physics rooms,” she said. “I would stay after hours and help her maintain the collection and keep everything in place. It was fantastic. I intuitively understood how important it was.”

First job in a laboratory

In 1988, Dr. Galvan enrolled at the Centro de Altos Estudios en Ciencias Exactas (Center for Advanced Studies in Sciences), located in Buenos Aires, majoring in biology. Her virology professor was amazing, she recalls, and she was thrilled to join his laboratory at the School of Medicine to complete her master’s thesis. Dr. Galvan felt she had arrived.

Upon her graduation in 1994, she was offered admission to the doctoral program at the University of Chicago. She joined the lab of Dr. Bernard Roizman, a world-renowned scientist in the field of herpes virology.

“Bernard made an indelible impression on me,” she says. “He was an incredible mentor – very tough. I needed somebody to be strict and push and get the most out of me. I think that the more is expected from you, the better you do. We were all his trainees, and he expected very high quality,” Dr. Galvan said.

Shift to neuroscience

Herpes infects neurons, and she became excited about viruses’ effects on neurons. This led to her current research focus on neurobiology.  She did her postdoctoral work in neurobiology at an institute devoted to aging, the Buck Institute in Northern California, where she trained in the laboratory of another top scientist, Dr. Dale Bredesen. “I began working on Alzheimer’s disease, studying neuronal cell death and creating mouse models,” she says.

Dr. Galvan became a staff scientist at the Buck Institute, where she developed a strong interest in aging and its relation to neurological disease, and when it was time to move on to start her own research program, she jumped at the chance in 2009 to join the world’s premier institute in the biology of aging, the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies at the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio. She is now an assistant professor in the Department of Physiology of the School of Medicine, with her lab and offices at the Barshop Institute.

Alzheimer’s and the aging brain

“More than 90 percent of the risk of getting Alzheimer’s is getting old,” Dr. Galvan says. “There is such a strong aging component to making a brain vulnerable to Alzheimer’s. What is it?” Her laboratory has discovered that a drug that delays aging, rapamycin, reverses Alzheimer’s-like memory deficits, “cleans up” undesirable protein clumps, and restores normal blood flow in brains of mice that model the disease, suggesting that both the cleanup of protein clumps and adequate blood flow are critical for maintaining healthy brains as we get older.

“The Barshop Institute is an amazing environment, and with our collaborators, Dr. Donald Royall and Dr. Dean Kellogg, we are working on clinical trials of rapamycin in early Alzheimer’s patients,” she says. “I am a basic scientist, and it is very rewarding that our discoveries are moving into clinical applications.”

A succession of great mentors, Sister Valeria chief among them, ignited and fostered Dr. Galvan’s passion for science. Today, Sister Valeria’s young student and protégé is ferreting out clues that could eventually make lives better for those facing Alzheimer’s.