Video by Alric Devotta
USC’s Jon-Paul Pepper is not the average award winner. He’s also not the average facial plastic surgeon, faculty researcher or master’s student — in part, because he’s currently all of these things.
At a ceremony held Orlando, Florida, in September 2014, Pepper received the first Research Scholar Award from the Educational and Research Foundation for the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery (AAFPRS). The award provides two years of funding for his study on reprogramming skin-derived stem cells into nerve grafts for the treatment of facial paralysis. He’s tackling this project in collaboration with cell reprogramming expert Justin Ichida, assistant professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at USC.
“Of course, I owe the academy a lot of thanks,” said Pepper. “They wanted to plant the seed for foundational and impactful basic science research, and so they felt that this project was a good fit for that.”
Pepper — who joined USC’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery as an assistant professor in Fall 2013 — specializes in the reconstructive surgery of the face. He believes that stem cells are the future of facial nerve reanimation, and is enrolled in USC’s new master of science in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine program.
“It was plain to me after a few of Dr. Ichida’s lab meetings that I had to formalize my background in stem cell biology to be able to be a more effective researcher,” he said. “Getting a master’s in stem cell biology is a very unique opportunity.”
Naturally, Pepper already has a few degrees under his belt. After toying with the idea of becoming a TV news reporter like his father, he went in a different direction and earned a bachelor’s in neuroscience from Brown University in 1999. He performed research stints at the National Institutes of Health and the University of California, San Francisco, and began volunteering at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco.
Pepper recalls, “A patient and I just spontaneously drummed up a conversation about what I was doing with my life. And I said, ‘You know, I don’t think I want to do research full time anymore.’ And he said, ‘You’re a people person. You should be a doctor.’ ”
Pepper followed this advice and earned his MD from the University of California, Irvine, School of Medicine in 2007. He completed both his residency and fellowship at the University of Michigan, and received the top board score in the nation on the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery examination in 2013.
He previously conducted clinical research as a complement to his practice, and has several active research grants. But it wasn’t until Pepper was recruited to USC that he began delving into stem cell research in pursuit of new treatments for facial paralysis.
“As I got established here, I realized how big the stem cell enterprise was,” he said. “And I saw that it was such a powerful technology that I reached out to Justin Ichida, and we started up this pilot research project.”
Pepper is also collaborating with USC Stem Cell principal investigator Mark Humayun on a clinical trial that explores electrical stimulation of facial nerves as a treatment for Bell’s palsy, a condition that causes sudden and unexplained facial paralysis.
“I do have an interest in not only developing my clinical practice but also performing impactful research,” said Pepper. “So I was ecstatic to be recruited to USC.”