USC Stem Cell: An incubator for medicine of the 21st century

Impromptu McMahon lab meeting
From left, Andy McMahon, Lisa Rutledge, Helena Bugacov and Alex Guo hold an impromptu lab meeting. (Photo by Christina Gandolfo)

Just over a decade ago, USC was a university with a few scattered stem cell biologists, and a vision for total transformation. The university was committed to designing a unique “incubator” for researchers at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and beyond to collaborate and leverage the transformative power of stem cells to develop the medicine of the future—regenerative medicine.

With support from the voters of California and powerful philanthropists including Eli and Edythe Broad, USC constructed an $80 million building dedicated solely to stem cell research and regenerative medicine—a center of gravity to house a new and unique department for the medical school. This department quickly expanded to encompass 26 laboratories, with more than half of these headed by newly recruited faculty at the early stages of their careers.

“The USC Stem Cell incubator draws creative minds to work together in an intellectually-charged, collaborative environment, where we live, breath, study and teach stem cell science,” said Andy McMahon, director of USC’s stem cell research center and chair of the Department of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine.

The USC Stem Cell “incubator” provides pilot funding for collaborative research projects, and runs shared research facilities in imaging, flow cytometry, stem cell engineering, genetic animal modeling and therapeutic screening for the benefit of both the stem cell researchers and the broader USC research community. It brings together leading minds from around the world at seminars, events and conferences, and trains the next generation of stem cell scientists through a dedicated PhD program and first-of-its-kind master’s degree.

USC Stem Cell collaborators include scientists, engineers and clinicians from at least 100 laboratories across USC’s schools and CHLA, focused on discovery and application of our understanding of how the body develops, repairs and regenerates its organ systems.

USC Stem Cell researchers have teamed up with collaborators across several major research universities including UCSF, UCLA, Stanford, UCSB and Caltech. Clinical trials are underway for a stem cell-derived treatment for age-related blindness caused by macular degeneration, and new trials are expected for a variety of medical conditions ranging from arthritis and sports-related injuries, to ALS, to a devastating birth defect known as craniosynostosis. Critically, USC Stem Cell researchers have brought in partners from the biotech industry and spun off five new startup companies in their goals to bring stem cell research to the clinic.

“Each of us in our own research specialty is challenged to move scientific insight, understanding and knowledge to therapeutic advantage,” said McMahon. “While our goals are aspirational, they are reasonably aspirational and will make a difference.”

Learn more about the exceptional students and groundbreaking research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC in the 2020–21 Annual Report.

Mentioned in this article: Andrew P. McMahon, PhD, FRS