By Jasmine Osmond
As an athlete, Russell T. Hepple always found the human body and athletic performance intriguing. It wasn’t long before those personal and professional interests merged and the question of why physical performance declines with age became central to his academic pursuits.
That focus has led Hepple, Ph.D., to the University of Florida, where he is a professor of physical therapy and muscle biology in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions department of physical therapy.
Hepple’s research, particularly in the areas of muscle aging and the effect of dysfunctional mitochondria, the energy powerhouse in cells, in muscles, led to his recruitment from Montreal’s McGill University as a preeminence hire. He also is affiliated with the UF Myology Institute and the UF Institute on Aging.
“He has made critical discoveries in the role that dysfunctional mitochondria play in compromising muscle using pre-clinical models as well as human biopsies,” said Andrew Judge, Ph.D., an associate professor in the UF College of Public Health and Health Professions department of physical therapy and associate director for training. “His scientific excellence, translational approach and international reputation ultimately made Dr. Hepple the candidate.’’
At McGill, Hepple and his wife, Tanja Taivassalo, Ph.D, collaborated on their research and co-mentored trainees in their studies of muscle in healthy aging and disease. Taivassalo was recruited as a research associate professor in the UF College of Medicine department of physiology and functional genomics. She is also a member of the UF Myology Institute.
They intend to continue working as a team with trainees at UF.
“It’s something that really works for us, and I think we both really enjoy it,” Hepple said. “And I think our trainees appreciate it because they get both of us, and we can provide our individual perspectives to each other’s students.”
Judge said Hepple already has a long list of accomplishments. Besides setting up and operating several labs and programs, his work with elite aging athletes has been well-documented.
For his part, Hepple prefers to look ahead.
“I don’t want to ride on my previous accomplishments too much,’’ he said. “I’m more excited to get started and focus on what’s to come. I’m thankful to the colleagues that believed in me enough to bring me here, but now I’m excited to earn my keep.”
After graduating from the University of Toronto, he studied structures regulating aerobic metabolism of muscle as a postdoctoral fellow at The University of California, San Diego. Later, he moved to the University of Calgary where he researched aging muscles in rodent models.
After 11 years there, Hepple went to McGill University, where he was the inaugural director of the McGill Research Center for Physical Activity and Health and director of the Muscle Aging Diagnostics Laboratory.
At UF, Hepple is branching out to dig into the causes of muscle impairment in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and changes in muscle mitochondria caused by chemotherapy. Since many cancers are now treatable, it’s essential to look into how the treatments physically affect the survivors and to make their standard of living better, Hepple said.
Hepple also said he plans on taking advantage of the expertise in the college focused on adeno-associated viruses for manipulating specific genes to develop experiments that address the mechanisms causing the loss of nerve-muscle connections due to chronic tobacco smoke exposure. This would further aid his research on muscle impairment in COPD and aging, and would also have applications to other smoking-related disorders such as cardiovascular disease.
Hepple said his decision to come to UF extended beyond the opportunities to continue his groundbreaking work. It was personal as well.
“It’s not just that the people here are doing really great research,” he said. “The people that we met during the recruitment phase seemed, almost without exception, genuinely nice people. They seemed like the kind of people we’d been wanting to work side by side with.”