Scientists feel the sand between their toes at the retreat for USC’s stem cell department

Kuo-Chang (Ted) Tseng from the Crump Lab and Michelle Hung from the Ichida Lab enjoy a beachside brainstorm.
Kuo-Chang (Ted) Tseng from the Crump Lab and Michelle Hung from the Ichida Lab enjoy a beachside brainstorm. (Photo by Cristy Lytal)

A pair of young scientists picked up a piece of driftwood and thoughtfully traced a series of letters in the wet sand of Ventura Beach. The word “microglia”—referring to the immune cells of the central nervous system—gleamed in the afternoon sun before being obliterated by the next ocean wave. All around them, PhD students, postdocs, faculty, and staff members enjoyed surf, sand, and science at the annual retreat for the USC Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, held from November 16–18 in Ventura, California.

In addition to beach volleyball, frisbee, and drawing and trivia competitions, the retreat featured an impressive lineup of scientific talks, panels, and posters.

During the keynote address, Professor Dennis Clegg from the University of California, Santa Barbara, shared his success in using stem cells to make a cell type that supports the health of the retina. These cells, known as retinal pigment epithelial cells, form the basis for ongoing clinical trials of a new treatment for the dry form of macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss in the U.S. The project brings together a team of scientists, surgeons, engineers, and industry partners from USC, City of Hope, Caltech, and Regenerative Patch Technologies with funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

USC graduate students and postdoctoral trainees also shared their research. Ivy Xiong from Andy McMahon’s lab won the award for the best talk by a postdoc for her presentation about the differences in gene activity in male and female kidneys. Talon Trecek from Neil Segil’s lab received the award for the best talk by a PhD student for his presentation about the role of gene regulation in the development of the inner ear. The awards for best posters went to postdoc Fokion Glykofrydis from Leonardo Morsut’s lab (1st place), PhD student Oscar Alberto De La Fuente from Scott Fraser’s lab (2nd place), and PhD student Tuo Shi from the Segil Lab and Gage Crump’s lab (3rd place).

Several of the students and trainees presented research examining how the body develops, maintains, and repairs itself, and how to use this understanding to study and treat disease. PhD student Ariel Vonk from Tom Lozito’s lab explored how lizards regenerate severed tails, and how this knowledge can inform regenerative therapies for humans. PhD student Shuwan Liu from Francesca Mariani’s lab described how the body responds to bone injury. Postdoc Marcella Birtele from Giorgia Quadrato’s lab discussed their study of an autism-associated gene’s effects on brain development. PhD student Janielle Cuala from Senta Georgia’s lab investigated the diversity of the pancreatic cells responsible for making insulin. Postdoc Remi Klotz from Min Yu’s lab explained how a subpopulation of breast cancer cells goes dormant during chemotherapy, then proliferates and causes brain metastases. And postdoc Falk Schneider from the Fraser Lab introduced a technique for measuring mechanical tension in living tissues, including developing embryos.

Other presentations addressed how stem cells differentiate into more mature cell types, and how tissues, organs, and embryos develop. PhD student Zheng Guo from Qi-Long Ying’s lab probed mechanisms for expanding populations of the progenitor cells of the immune system. PhD student Zachary Thomas from Rong Lu’s lab chronicled the complex ways that blood stem cells communicate with each other. Postdoc Pei Fei from Yang Chai’s lab presented research about how sensory nerves modulate the stem cells that cause rodent incisors to grow. PhD student Olivia Chen from the Crump Lab described the role of a specific gene in jaw development. PhD student Eda Atmaca from Oliver Bell’s lab talked about how gene regulation drives neural development, and how misregulation can contribute to autism and neurodevelopmental disease.

Additional presentations touched on how stem cell approaches can aid in the quest for new drugs to treat disease. PhD student Shu-Ting (Michelle) Hung from Justin Ichida’s lab discussed a potential drug to treat ALS in patients without a family history of the disease. PhD student Lei Peng from Michael Bonaguidi’s lab discussed an approach for predicting which drugs might be useful for rejuvenating neural stem cells and cognitive function, which naturally declines with age. Postdoc Arjita Sarkar from Denis Evseenko’s lab discussed a potential drug for targeting a genetic mechanism that plays a role in both the embryonic development of cartilage and the onset of arthritis.

Other talks featured research related to developing gene, protein, and cell-based therapies, as well as tissue engineering. Postdoc Biao Huang from Zhongwei Li’s lab shared progress in building mini-kidneys known as a organoids. PhD student Natalie Khalil from Megan McCain’s lab introduced a small device that can expose developing kidney structures to fluid flow, mimicking natural physiological conditions and creating more nuanced models of disease. PhD student Mher Gayibyan from the Morsut and McCain labs shared an approach for directing cells to differentiate and assemble into the precursors of muscle fibers.

PhD student Andrew Charensouk from the Mariani Lab moderated a career panel featuring faculty members McMahon, Evseenko, Ichida, Louise Menendez, and Mohamed Abou-el-Enein, as well as Juliane Glaeser, the director of translational and collaborative research programs for USC Stem Cell. The panelists offered career advice and inspiration, described professional challenges and life lessons, and shared their vision of the future of regenerative medicine.

“I imagine in 20 years time what might be different about medicine,” said McMahon, chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine. “There’s going to be a revolution in developing safe and effective approaches for genetic correction. And given that the potential of cells is so great, we can imagine over the next 20 years a broad range of cell-based therapies that don’t exist now.”

A second panel, moderated by PhD student Younjoo Lee from the Evseenko Lab, brought together faculty members Bonaguidi, Ying, Yu, and Quadrato to discuss models for studying disease that capture patient diversity. Lab mice and other animals work well for some studies, while patient-derived cells can be critical for other studies.

“Every model organism has pros and cons,” said Ying, professor of stem cell biology and regenerative medicine, and integrative anatomical sciences.

Other sessions included presentations by the department faculty. Associate Professor Evseenko introduced different “Replace”, “Re-Niche,” and “Rejuvenate” strategies for joint issues such as arthritis, ranging from stem cell-derived cartilage implants to a potential drug to curb the systemic low-grade inflammation often associated with the disease.

Associate Professor McCain described two bioengineering projects related to heart disease. One project involves growing heart muscle cells on a computer chip-like device that enables scientists to study varying levels of oxygen deprivation following a heart attack. The second project uses a small device to grow zebrafish heart cells, which have a remarkable ability to regenerate after injury and could provide insights for treating human cardiac disease.

Three assistant professors presented their work related to genes and how they are turned on and off through a process known as epigenetic regulation. Bell described how irregularities in epigenetic regulation can contribute to neurodevelopmental disorders. Nils Lindström shared progress in mapping how gene regulation drives kidney development. Albert Almada gave an update about his research about how stem cells are activated in our muscles, and how this can inform therapies for injuries, aging, and muscular dystrophies.

In the closing session, presenters shared news about educational, preclinical, and clinical programs related to USC Stem Cell.

Crump, professor and vice-chair of the Department Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, introduced USC’s new stem cell minor, as well as a new undergraduate program called COMPASS funded by CIRM. He also discussed the stem cell master’s program’s second-year thesis option, highlighted the success of PhD students in the Development, Stem Cells, and Regenerative Medicine program in securing NIH fellowships, talked about training grants funded by NIH and CIRM, and provided information about the USC Stem Cell Postdoctoral Fellows Program.

Glaeser shared information about the new Alpha Clinic at USC and Children’s Hospital Los Angeles (CHLA), funded by an $8 million CIRM grant. The USC+CHLA Alpha Clinic will serve as a hub for training, community outreach, and research to advance clinical trials of cell and gene therapies. It is one of nine Alpha Clinics at top biomedical research institutions across California.

As Executive Director of the USC/CHLA Cell Therapy Program, Abou-el-Enein gave an update about USC’s new facility for manufacturing cell therapies, which will celebrate its grand opening in January 2023. The facility is known as a “cGMP,” which refers to the “current good manufacturing practices” required by the FDA when making medical treatments for use in patients.

“This has been a fabulous meeting with great contributions from lots of different people, and really highly interactive,” said McMahon. “I haven’t spotted a whale, but I’ve seen porpoises and seals, and I’m going back as a much calmer person.”