University of Pittsburgh

The Dickson Prize in Medicine

2021 Dickson Prize Winner


Cynthia Kenyon, PhD

Vice President of Aging Research

Calico Life Sciences

Cynthia Kenyon, PhD, is the 2021 recipient of the Dickson Prize in Medicine, the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine’s highest honor. Kenyon is a pioneer in the field of aging biology whose research has helped reveal that aging is subject to genetic regulation, overturning the longstanding belief that aging is simply a haphazard decline. She is currently vice president of aging research at the Alphabet subsidiary Calico Life Sciences, a basic research and drug development company seeking to advance our understanding of aging and improve the quality of life as we age.

Kenyon studied chemistry and biochemistry at the University of Georgia, graduating as valedictorian in 1976. She then completed a PhD at MIT with Graham Walker, where she pioneered the identification of genes on the basis of their expression profiles, finding that DNA-damaging agents activate a battery of DNA repair genes in E. coli. Kenyon carried out her postdoctoral training with Nobel laureate Sydney Brenner at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, studying developmental pattern formation in C. elegans, a small roundworm.

Aging had long been considered an inevitable, uncontrollable biological process—but as a faculty member at the University of California, San Francisco, Kenyon challenged this belief. Overturning a longstanding assumption wasn’t easy, however. Many of Kenyon’s peers were convinced that aging was merely an entropic decline and that looking for genes that actively control the rate of aging was futile. Kenyon initially had trouble recruiting young scientists to her lab who shared her enthusiasm and hopes for aging biology.

Then, in 1993, she and her colleagues made the pioneering discovery that a single mutation in the daf-2 gene could double the lifespan of healthy, fertile C. elegans. Further, the long-lived worms appeared to stay young longer than normal. Her findings showed that aging is indeed subject to genetic regulation, and they sparked an intensive interest in and study of the molecular biology of aging. Her research led to the realization that a universal endocrine network influences the rate of aging of many organisms, possibly including humans.

Kenyon and her lab members have uncovered many genes that regulate aging and revealed that these genes coordinate diverse processes that protect the cells and tissues. She showed that the different tissues of the animal interact with one another to set the overall rate of aging, and that individual neurons, and also germ cells, can control the lifespan of the entire animal.

At UCSF, Kenyon was the Herbert Boyer Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics and, after joining Calico in 2014, is now an emeritus professor. She has received many honors and awards, including an American Cancer Society Research Professorship, the Dan David Prize, the King Faisal International Prize for Medicine, the Association of American  Medical Colleges Award for Distinguished Research in the Biomedical Sciences, and many others. Kenyon is a past president of the Genetics Society of America and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the National Academy of Sciences.