Mahtab Jafari: Reach for the Moon and Land on it

09/21/2017 09:48 am ET

With the goal of harnessing the untapped potential of Iranian-Americans, and to build the capacity of the Iranian diaspora in effecting positive change in the U.S. and around the world, the Iranian Americans’ Contributions Project (IACP) has launched a series of interviews that explore the personal and professional backgrounds of prominent Iranian-Americans who have made seminal contributions to their fields of endeavor. We examine lives and journeys that have led to significant achievements in the worlds of science, technology, finance, medicine, law, the arts and numerous other endeavors. Our latest interviewee is Mahtab Jafari.

Dr. Jafari is currently Professor and Vice Chair of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of California, Irvine (UCI). She received her Doctorate in Pharmacy and completed her residency at the University of California, San Francisco in 1995. She has held a number of positions in academia and pharmaceutical companies including UCSF, UCI, and Abbott Laboratories.

At UCI Medical Center, she founded and directed the Cholesterol Clinic and served as the Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Risk Reduction Program. In 2001, she joined Abbott Laboratories as a senior scientist and worked in the Neuroscience and Metabolic Groups, and subsequently became the Regional Scientific Manager.

In 2005, she was recruited back to UCI to develop the new Pharmaceutical Sciences Program. Her current research focus is on slowing the aging process and adding healthy years to human life through a science that she introduced as Healthspan Pharmacology. Using human cultured cells, fruit flies, and mice she studies the impact of botanical extracts and dietary supplements on aging.

Dr. Jafari is the recipient of numerous teaching and mentoring awards at UCI, including the Distinguished Professor Award for Teaching, the Anthology Yearbook Most Inspiring Health Sciences Professor, the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences Most Inspirational Professor Award, the Chancellor’s award for Fostering Undergraduate Research, and the Assistant Professor Award for Teaching. She is also a two-time recipient of the Templeton Foundation Spirituality in Medicine Award. In 2013, the Federal Executive Public Service Board awarded her the Team Accomplishment award for the FDA/UCI Internship Program that she developed in collaboration with the FDA Compliance Office. Additionally, Dr. Jafari’s research on botanical extracts earned her the UCI Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine’s Discovery Award in 2012. She was also selected among “20 women to watch in Orange County” by Orange County Metro Business Magazine. For more information about Dr. Jafari’s work, please visit her research website at www.mahtabjafari.com.

Tell our readers where you grew up and walk us through your background. How did your family and surroundings influence you in your formative years?

I was born in Tehran to a family that valued education, service, and treating everyone with respect. At a very young age, my parents taught me the equality of the sexes. I grew up with two brothers and many male cousins but I was never told that I could not do a certain sport or activity just because I was a girl. I lived in Tehran through the 1979 revolution and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war. During the war, we would take refuge in our small basement during nightly air raids by Iraqi airplanes. I still remember going to school the next day while driving by the neighborhoods that were attacked by missiles the night before. It was very stressful and sad.

We subsequently left Iran and moved to France, where I had to learn the language while attending high school. After graduating from high school, we moved to the US where I then had to learn English while attending college. Living through a revolution, a war, moving from one country to another, and learning to adapt to new environments, to learn new languages, and to find new friends taught me to not to take my blessings for granted.

I was always fascinated with science but after taking chemistry and human physiology in high school, I decided to pursue a degree that had relevance to human health. I majored in chemistry for my undergraduate studies and went on to the University of California, San Francisco for graduate work and received a Doctorate in Pharmacy degree.

Perhaps the most important influence in my life was my mother. She always set high standards for her children, and encouraged us to both reach for the moon and land on the moon.

You received a number of awards and honors for your research, mentorship and teaching. What were the significant accomplishments that led to these?

I have been asked this question before and I honestly do not have an answer for it. I love to teach and to mentor. I started teaching when I was in 5th grade at Hadaf Elementary School in Tehran, when my science teacher asked me to tutor students. I became a volunteer tutor for my classmates at 7:00 am, two days per week. My mother was a professor at the University of Tehran, and watching my mother’s interactions with her students and how much she enjoyed teaching sparked my interest in teaching at a young age. Today, as a professor lecturing in front of hundreds of students, I try not to take the privilege of being a teacher for granted. I live vicariously through the successes and achievements of my students. I have been involved in commencement ceremonies for my graduating students for over 20 years and recently had the privilege of serving as the 2017 commencement speaker for the UCI College of Health Sciences. Still, every time that I shake the hands of my students on the commencement stage and congratulate them, I have tears in my eyes.

What has been your personal key to success? What were the biggest inspirations for your career?

When we moved to US in 1987, I became a tutor in French and calculus at my college. One of my students had cerebral palsy but he was determined to finish college. He and I communicated via a keyboard that he carried on his lap while sitting in his wheelchair. I helped him with his calculus courses and he eventually was able to transfer to a university. In return, he taught me that every student has the potential to succeed. He also taught me gratefulness. He participated in the Special Olympics and won 1st place in arm wrestling and gave me his award plaque, which I still display in my office. Thirty years later, my students are still my biggest source of inspiration.

Your fields of research have covered a wide range—from clinical research to basic sciences. Your current research focus is on the Impact of Botanical Extracts and Dietary Supplements on Longevity and Health and you coined Healthspan Pharmacology. Can you share some highlights of your work in these areas?

Until 2005, as a clinician and researcher, the general focus of my work was on the efficacy and toxicity of cardiovascular and anti-dyslipidemia drugs and metabolic complications of drugs affecting the nervous system. In 1998, at UCI Medical Center, I founded and directed the Cholesterol Clinic and served as the Co-Director of the Cardiovascular Risk Reduction Program. In 2001, I joined Abbott Laboratories as a senior scientist and worked in the Neuroscience and Metabolic Groups and subsequently became a Regional Scientific Manager. In spite of a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, I was always interested in a wellness model of healthcare as opposed to a disease- and pharmaceutical-driven model of care. In 2005, I was recruited back to UCI to develop the new major in Pharmaceutical Sciences and help develop the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences as the founding faculty member. In this new position, I shifted the focus of my research from the diseases of aging to slowing the aging process itself and towards improving Healthspan, which we defined as the duration of life that is free of debilitating chronic diseases. Using human cultured cells, we now study fruit flies and mice and the impact of botanical extracts and dietary supplements on aging and Healthspan. Fruit flies are a good model for studying aging and diseases of aging because they share 75% of our human disease genes. My research team developed an algorithm to screen and identify anti-aging compounds and plant extracts. In our work, we have identified 5 botanical extracts that extend the lifespan of fruit flies while improving their Healthspan. We are now in the process of testing one of these botanical extracts in a mouse model of obesity and diabetes. We also utilize fruit flies as a platform to evaluate potential adverse effects of botanical extracts. For example, my former graduate student Dr. Terry Lopez published several papers showing that green tea extends the lifespan of male flies but at the expense of damaging their reproductive system.

Could you please identify a couple of researches that you value as of high importance produced by your lab?

Over the past twelve years, we tested about 100 compounds (including pharmaceutical agents, natural products, and botanical extracts) using the algorithm that we developed. We identified 5 plant extracts that extended lifespan and improved Healthspan: Rhodiola rosea, Rosa damascenca, curcumin, cinnamon, and Angelica keiskei. I am very proud and excited by these findings, which have laid the groundwork for ongoing studies in mice and ultimately for human clinical trials. The ultimate goal of our work is to add healthy years to human life and I am very optimistic that we can achieve this goal with a cocktail. This cocktail will include pharmacological interventions such as botanical extracts, individualized nutrition and exercise plans, and modalities to promote healthy minds.

In your view, what is the biggest challenge with which your field is currently grappling?

There are several major challenges in my field but perhaps the most important one is lack of funding! I believe the future of medicine is in preventive and integrative care. We spend a lot of money on discovering pharmaceuticals that would treat disease, a very reactive model of healthcare, and not on discovering and studying interventions that promote wellness, which represents a proactive model of healthcare. To make the situation worst, most pharmaceutical industry research and development revenues are spent on “me too” drugs, developing agents with similar action to drugs that are already on the market. Why? Because that is a safe and low risk path for pharmaceutical companies to make big profits. I am not against pharmaceutical research because we need to discover drugs for a number of life threatening diseases such as cancer. I hope that the next fundamental breakthroughs in biomedical research take place in Healthspan Pharmacology, in understanding the biology of aging, chronic diseases of aging, and how to blunt or reverse these processes.

What are the research avenues you are exploring for the next few years?

After doing mostly basic science research for the past 12 years, I am hoping to go back to clinical research and test my hypotheses for Healthspan extension in humans.

You have developed a course titled Life 101 to help your students better balance their lives. Could you tell our readers about it more?

As you know, stress levels in college students are increasing at an alarmingly fast pace. My students are no exception! I started thinking that in addition to offering academic courses that students are supposed to take in their field of study, we also need to teach our students the importance of mental and physical wellness and help them to recognize and manage their stress. To inspire our undergraduate students to adopt healthy lifestyle choices, in 2013 I developed Life101 to teach my students the importance of mental and physical wellness, focusing on stress management, emotional intelligence, financial management, nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness. The course is offered both in class and online and it is discussion-based. According to my surveys, the course appears to have had a significant positive impact on the lifestyle of our students. My hope is to offer this course to every single undergraduate student at UCI and to all other University of California students. I will be happy to share my lectures and ideas with colleagues in other universities who might like to offer this course to their own students.

Can you share your thoughts on your Iranian-American identity? What does it mean to be an Iranian-American to you?

I am very proud of my Iranian heritage that dates back thousands of years. It encompasses Cyrus Cylinder, the first declaration of human rights in the 6th Century BC, Avicenna, the physician and philosopher, who wrote the first standard medical texts c. 1000, Rumi, the renowned 13th century poet, Shirin Ebadi, the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003, and many other scientists, artists, musicians, and entrepreneurs who have changed the landscape of their fields to improve human life. Growing up, I have lived in different countries and although I identify myself as a citizen of the world, I still have a very acute sense of my Iranian heritage. My husband is American and he has embraced the beautiful Persian culture with ease, especially Persian food. He even recites Rumi poetry in Farsi. My non-Iranian friends love to come to our home for dinner parties. They think nothing beats the Persian hospitality. I cannot agree with them more.

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