Broad Innovation Award winners aim to reduce bathroom breaks with stem cells

From left, Eun Ji Chung from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and Larissa Rodriguez and Rong Zhang from the Keck School of Medicine of USC (Photos courtesy of USC)
From left, Eun Ji Chung from the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and Larissa Rodriguez and Rong Zhang from the Keck School of Medicine of USC (Photos courtesy of USC)

Having a baby can change a woman’s life in one way that she is often too embarrassed to mention. Childbirth can cause urinary incontinence, which affects up to 13 million people and incurs $16.3 billion in annual treatment costs in the United States alone.

To address this common problem, this year’s winners of the Eli and Edythe Broad Innovation Award are engineering a stem cell-based, biomaterials approach to promote the regeneration of the urethra. The one-year award provides $100,000 of direct research funding and an additional $20,000 to cover services in relevant core facilities at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC.

The project brings together Larissa V. Rodríguez and Rong Zhang from the Department of Urology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC with Eun Ji Chung from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“The Broad Innovation Award is really essential for what we’re trying to do,” said Rodríguez, who is also associate provost for faculty and student initiatives in health and STEM, director of Female Pelvic Medicine and Reconstructive Surgery (FPMRS) at the Keck Medicine of USC – Beverly Hills clinic, vice chair of academics for the USC Institute of Urology, and director of the FPMRS Fellowship at the Keck School. “It’s allowing this multidisciplinary collaboration with the Keck School and USC Viterbi.”

Chung added: “Our lab develops biomaterials for a variety of applications, but the Broad Innovation Award links us with experts in urology for the first time. We believe, with this team, we can develop a long-term solution that can provide regenerative properties for urinary incontinence.”

Together, they hope to advance treatments beyond the current industry standard, which involves injecting Coaptite or Macroplastique—synthetic bulking agents or slings. These therapies can assist with urethral closure, but do not improve urethral function and may trigger complications including chronic inflammation, abscesses, immune reactions, urinary tract obstruction, urethra or bladder erosion, or even blood clots in the lungs.

As a new approach, they are developing a bioactive hydrogel—a type of water-logged gel made of peptides, which are the building blocks of proteins. They plan to inject this hydrogel around the urethra as a temporary bulking agent to assist with closure. At the same time, the hydrogel will actively deliver fat-derived stem cells and other factors to encourage tissue regeneration and the restoration of muscle tone. Eventually, the hydrogel will completely biodegrade, replaced by a regenerated and fully functional urethra.

The research team is currently testing this approach in rats with urinary incontinence, in hopes of eventually garnering supplementary grant funding to advance this work into clinical trials to help patients.

“Urinary incontinence keeps people from enjoying their children, enjoying their grandchildren, going to a movie, doing activities that all of us expect in terms of having a happy life,” said Rodríguez, who is also a urologist and surgeon. “It disproportionately affects women, so I also see this as a woman’s health issue. And I feel a moral sense of really giving back to these women, and giving to a population that I treat by advancing the science.”

Mentioned in this article: Larissa V. Rodríguez, MD