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University of Basel

An almost forgotten pioneer

Text: Martin Hicklin

Healthy aging is an aspiration for many and a hot topic in research. The Basel physiologist Fritz Verzár (1886–1979) is regarded as a trailblazer for modern gerontology. Although largely forgotten today, his ideas are now being taken up once again.

Collin Ewald, a 35-year-old SNSF research professor at ETH Zurich, is following a hot lead. Ewald, who is from Basel, trained at Basel University’s Biozentrum, gained his master’s at the Friedrich Miescher Institute and then completed a PhD in Alzheimer’s research in New York. After that, he moved to Harvard Medical School’s Joslin Diabetes Center, where he turned his attention to the question of which factors support health aging and longevity.

While working on this topic, Ewald made a discovery: He found solid evidence that the seemingly unstoppable breakdown of supporting tissues and their functions outside the cells (the so-called extracellular matrix) that happens during aging can be halted or even reversed. The growth factor known as insulin/IGF-1 and its signaling pathway play a key role in this process. If IGF-1 is inhibited, this has the effect, at the other end, of reversing shrinkage in the network between the cells. At the same time, the matrix, which thins out more with every passing year, is filled up with new collagens, the elastic supportive and fibrous proteins present throughout the body.

Collagens and the aging process

This seemed to have been overlooked previously. «At first, I thought it couldn’t be right», Ewald says, «but then we compared the data for all the models dealing with longevity and saw that longevity is always accompanied by an increase in collagen production.» Collagens, which make up a third of all proteins, must therefore be linked in a very direct way to aging. Ewald was rightly proud of this work, which was published in «Nature». «I thought we were the first», he says today. But then, in the course of his research, he suddenly came across the name of a man who, more than 50 years earlier in Basel, had postulated that collagens are indicators of aging and begun to study them in depth.

Prof. Fritz Verzár. (Image: Universitätsbibliothek Basel; Fotograf: Teichmann)
Prof. Fritz Verzár. (Image: Universitätsbibliothek Basel; Fotograf: Teichmann)

That researcher’s name was Fritz Verzár, and his name is certainly worth remembering – not least because by the time he died in 1979, aged 93, as a citizen of Arlesheim, you could say that he had lived three different lives: First in Hungary, where he studied medicine, like his father, and earned an excellent reputation as a hospital organizer. Although he could probably have made a career for himself at home, in 1930 he accepted the offer of a position at the University of Basel and moved to the West, seen as a «paradise» for researchers like him. There, he took up the chair of physiology at the Vesalianum – a venerable building, although one with a rather unsuitable setup at the time, that had been constructed under Friedrich Miescher, the man who discovered DNA. Verzár was 44 years old when he began his second life in Basel.

Research into nutrition

In Basel, Verzár continued his work on the neurophysiology of vitamins and hormones, conducted some skillful and successful experiments on the absorption of sugars in the gut, and collaborated with Tadeus Reichstein, later a Nobel prizewinner, in the field of corticosteroids. In St Moritz, where he regularly went on holiday with his wife, son and daughter, he started studying high-altitude physiology and counting condensation nuclei. Widely regarded as a leading nutrition scientist, in 1942 he was charged with planning a nutrition program for the post-war years. In addition, from 1949 he did a study of the «coca problem» in Peru and Bolivia for the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

In 1956, when he was already moving toward retirement, the Swiss Federal Council commissioned him to perform a study of the nutritional and health status of the Alpine population, which was seen as a cause for concern. But what is meant by retirement? Verzár saw it as an opportunity to embark on a third life, dedicated primarily to «experimental gerontology», which at the time was still a rather exotic science. His aim was not to get younger, but to find out exactly what happens in molecular terms during aging. His enthusiasm for the subject had been kindled by Vladimir Korenchevsky, known as the «father of gerontology», on a visit by the latter to Basel in 1952. Such was his interest that, with the support of his friend Karl Miescher, then the director of research at the pharmaceutical company Ciba, he set up a rat colony to study aging.

Rat tail tendons as a model

At first, there were around 1,000 animals, a figure that would later more than double. In a small laboratory at the Anatomy Institute, Verzár embarked on a painstaking investigation of one phenomenon associated with aging – the modification and breakdown of collagens. His rats’ tail tendons provided him with a model and source. To create more space, he rented a fourth-floor apartment at Klingelbergstrasse 11, where researchers crowded into the kitchen and main room from time to time. When the American Muscular Dystrophy offered him funding and industry started to show an interest in his research, Verzár realized that it was time to do things properly.

The fact that Verzár, now in his 70s, was able to set up a foundation for experimental gerontology with a top-class board, including prominent figures from politics, industry and the university, is testimony to his captivating manner. However, the real proof of his powers of persuasion came with the purchase, using money from chemical companies, of a house in Nonnenweg 7. Here a bustling «Institute for Experimental Gerontology» now set to work – with colonies of rats and clawed frogs. The institute quickly became a hub for gerontologists. Even today, the physician Daniela Schlettwein-Gsell, who was involved in the Alpine population project as a young doctor, talks enthusiastically about the stimulating atmosphere and Verzár’s tireless work as a researcher. The biologist Marco Ermini, who was a doctoral student in the building at the time, praises Verzár for his supportive attitude toward younger colleagues, noting that he was always ready to listen to what anyone had to say.

Verzár’s work on collagen attracted widespread interest, and rat tendons remained a popular model in gerontology. The institute did not close its doors until the 1970s, following the sale of the building to cover running costs. Verzár retired in 1976 and died peacefully in his sleep in Dornach three years later. He would have celebrated his 130th birthday on September 18 this year.

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