Alumni profile: Calvin Harley

Follow your passion. Life is too short to not like what you’re doing.”

Photo of Calvin Harley Science alumnus Calvin Harley (BSc ’75), has certainly followed his own advice. With a long-term interest in cellular aging, Calvin has made prolific contributions to his field. And now Calvin can add another honour to his resume: he is the recipient of the 2010 Distinguished Alumni Award.

Even though Calvin had wanted to be a scientist since he was eight years old, it was philosophical conversations he shared with an older brother that narrowed his focus on cellular aging.

In grade nine I got thinking about the science behind the idea of life and death,” Calvin says. “And I thought perhaps there was a way to stop aging.”

After graduating from Waterloo, Calvin completed his PhD at McMaster University in the only lab in Canada to have a focus on cellular aging at that time. Following his post-doctoral work in England and California, Calvin had opportunities within industry, but none were working on aging, so he decided to establish his own laboratory at McMaster, where he began to focus on telomere research.

Every chromosome has two telomeres (end structures), which are needed for cells to divide successfully. Telomeres are markers of cellular aging in that they get shorter with each cell division, but they are also contributing factors in aging. When telomeres become critically short, cells become senescent, and we become susceptible to health problems, such as cancer and degenerative diseases.

Through his research, Calvin has discovered that telomeres can be elongated by leading a healthy lifestyle.

Diet, exercise and even reduced psychological stress play a part in telomere health,” Calvin says.

In 1993, Calvin left McMaster and joined Geron Corporation in California, which focuses on developing first-in-class biopharmaceuticals for the treatment of cancer and chronic degenerative diseases. Calvin made a number of research breakthroughs, including the discovery that telomerase, the enzyme responsible for maintaining telomere length, was activated in cancer cells as a way to evade mortality.

In 2010, Calvin co-founded Telome Health with Nobel Prize winner Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn. Their new company aims to leverage telomere and telomerase biology to help people monitor their health status and to predict response to medical treatments. “We are most interested in optimizing personal preventive health care,” he says. “But for people who have a disease, our technology may also help doctors select the best therapy for that individual.”

Even though Calvin has been away from Canada for quite sometime, he believes the education he received at Waterloo prepared him tremendously well.

My undergraduate education at Waterloo was both broad and deep across the sciences,” he says. “Waterloo was, and still is, a terrific university and I had great mentors who helped shape my career. I feel very honoured to be recognized with a Distinguished Alumni Award from Waterloo.”