JAX fellowship boosts research into bladder function and aging

(l to r) Cara Hardy and Ron Korstanje in the Korstanje Lab with a photo of Ken and Beverly Paigen. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer(l to r) Cara Hardy and Ron Korstanje in the Korstanje Lab with a photo of Beverly and Ken Paigen. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer

Inaugural Paigen Fellow Cara Hardy, Ph.D., studies bladder-brain connections and joins a tradition of mentorship at JAX

When Cara Hardy first began giving talks about the physiology of aging bladders, she was struck by how many people approached her to share their appreciation for her work. Bladder function, it seemed, remained a taboo social topic.

“People would pull me aside and say, ‘I didn’t know that what I’m experiencing is not normal,’” she said, referring to their struggles with bladder dysfunction. “I think I am making a meaningful difference just by working to understand an issue that affects so many people yet isn’t discussed as openly as other human health concerns.”

As a postdoctoral associate in the JAX laboratory of Ron Korstanje, Ph.D., Hardy studies urinary physiology to understand why some bladders function normally over time while others do not. She hopes to find genetic markers to help predict a patient’s likelihood of developing bladder issues later in life.

Her research interests are the ideal complement to Korstanje’s work on the genetics of kidney function and disease over time. While the kidneys and bladder are close neighbors in the human urinary system, few scientists have studied them together. Hardy’s addition to the lab has given JAX a foothold in a wide-open field of biomedical research.

“Cara brings wonderful energy to the lab,” Korstanje said. “As a physiologist among genetics researchers, she approaches the science with a different perspective and brings new ideas to the table. No one else is studying the connections between the kidney and bladder, especially in the context of aging. Having her on our team gives us a unique opportunity to make new discoveries.”

Hardy is the inaugural recipient of the Paigen Endowed Fellowship, established to honor the late Drs. Kenneth and Beverly Paigen as former JAX employees and key figures in the Laboratory’s history. Ken served as director (the role now designated president and CEO) from 1989 to 2003, and Beverly was a professor at JAX from 1989 to 2020.

Beverly Paigen also was Korstanje’s mentor during his postdoctoral tenure at JAX. They became good friends and eventual colleagues when Korstanje accepted a faculty position in 2013. He even occupies the same lab space at JAX’s Bar Harbor campus, as the Paigen Lab became the Korstanje Lab when he accepted the position.

“Bev gave us the freedom to explore,” Korstanje said. “She made sure we had time and resources to pursue our own research projects. She taught us how to write papers and grants, and always gave great advice. I hope to pass those same skills on to my trainees.”

The Jackson Laboratory's Cara Hardy working at a microscope and computer. Photo credit: Tiffany LauferThe Jackson Laboratory's Cara Hardy. Photo credit: Tiffany Laufer

Finding bladder-brain connections

Hardy has particular interest in the relationship between bladder function and cognitive decline. Her research has shown that the onset of cognitive decline generates a specific bladder phenotype, which suggests bladder dysfunction may stem from a brain-bladder communication issue rather than the age of the tissue itself.

“It has been rewarding to parse out distinctions between disease and aging,” Hardy said. “Bladder function relies heavily on the central nervous system. It’s not that all bladders just get old and stop working; the story is much more complicated than that.”

But, she said, patients often are recruited into clinical studies too late, when the opportunity to track changes in the bladder has already passed. She hopes her research will encourage doctors to conduct urodynamic testing—an assessment of how the bladder contracts and relaxes unconsciously in response to fluid—earlier in a patient’s medical journey.

“If I do nothing else in my career, I hope my research might prove that using this diagnostic test sooner makes a difference,” she said. “It would open an important dialogue about patient wishes, drug therapies or behavioral interventions before the cognitive issues really set in.”

Visit our website to learn more about postdoctoral research at JAX.