Scientists at Chronobiology Center in La Jolla study circadian rhythms to fight diseases

By Lynne Friedmann

It has been five days since the switch to Daylight Saving Time. Feel fatigued? Feeling a bit listless? It’s not just because of that lost hour of sleep.

Our biological systems are intimately tied to the day-night cycle that sets our circadian rhythms: Circadian from the Latin circa (approximately) and diem (day).

Understanding the basic biology of circadian rhythms (the study of “chronobiology”) is vital to our daily lives as one half of the population suffers from some problem in their daily sleep cycle. In addition to Daylight Saving Time, medications, artificial lighting, shift-work, jet lag, even 24/7 Internet access all represent chronobiological changes that can affect productivity and physical and mental well-being.

“People are fascinated about sleep; about performance rhythms,” said Stuart Brody, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of biology and founding director of the Center for Chronobiology, at UCSD.

Established in 2009, the CCB is the larger center of its kind in the world devoted to the study of chronobiology. An organized research unit of the University of California, it consists of an interdepartmental group of faculty members and students.

What sets the CCB apart from other chronobiology research centers is the large number of investigators, all in one place, and the breadth of the research being conducted: More than 30 scientists who are on the faculty of UCSD, The Salk Institute, The Scripps Research Institute, or are part of other research centers.

CCB research – conducted on bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals – span general and reproductive medicine, pharmacology, psychology, psychiatry, philosophy, biological sciences, neurosciences, bioengineering, biocircuits and physics.

From the beginning, the CCB has attracted investigators with skills in molecular biology.

It is the ability to look for genes related to problems (such as sleep disorders) that has transformed the science of chronobiology from merely “descriptive” to research that can be measured.

“This has helped research efforts reach critical mass,” according to Brody.

Brody and his colleagues not only want to build up chronobiology as a field, they also want to make study findings important to medicine.

Researchers involved in the center investigate the basic mechanisms of the circadian clock as well as the role of human circadian disorders in regulating the sleep-wake cycle, glucose stability, and weight control with the long-term goal of developing new molecular treatments for patients suffering from disorders as diverse as insomnia, diabetes and obesity.

“Many, many diseases have chronobiology underpinnings,” said Susan Golden, Ph.D., current CCB director. “But, it’s taking a frustratingly long time to incorporate chronobiology into the clinic. For example, lots of data indicate that if cancer chemotherapy is given at a particular time of day it can be more effective.”

In February, the CCB held its 4th annual chronbiology symposium. The title says it all: “From Cells to Clinic.”