USC stem cell researcher Lori O’Brien receives the first Broad Fellowship

Lori O'Brien (Photo by Cristy Lytal)
Lori O'Brien (Photo by Cristy Lytal)

What makes stem cells develop into kidneys? Lori O’Brien, a postdoctoral research associate in the laboratory of Andy McMahon, has received the first Broad Fellowship to help answer this question.

O’Brien is the first of a series of Broad Fellows, exceptional senior postdoctoral researchers at the transition point to starting their own stem cell laboratories. The fellowship will support the launch of her independent career and ensure that she has the opportunity to make her mark in the field of kidney research.

The fellowship was established as part of a $2 million gift from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC.

“One component of this money is to provide senior postdoctoral fellows with a year’s worth of funding and their own lab support,” said McMahon, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. “It covers costs for them to develop research opportunities that they can take with them as they move into the next stage of their careers. This enables our most promising young scientists to become the next generation of innovators in regenerative medicine.”

The unanimous choice of the external committee that reviewed the applications, O’Brien’s project explores how key genes are either “turned on” or “turned off” through a process called epigenetic regulation. Turning off specific genes in kidney stem cells helps prompt them to self-renew, or divide and give rise to more stem cells. These stem cells continue to self-renew until they receive the right signals to undergo specialization or differentiation into nephron cells, which form the functional unit of the kidneys.

In particular, O’Brien is focusing her attention on an important epigenetic regulator called Phf19, which encourages embryonic stem cells to self-renew, and may have a similar effect on kidney stem cells.

O’Brien has always possessed a curious mind with a scientific bent. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she witnessed her first “dissection” when her dad, who liked to fish, would clean and filet his catch in the yard. She remembers her fascination with this early glimpse into fish anatomy — as well as with all aspects of the natural world.

She parlayed her inquisitive mind into research and teaching ventures at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology and a PhD in biochemistry. As a postdoctoral researcher, her passion for learning new things spurred her to take on the challenge of studying the development of one of the body’s most complex organs, the kidney, in the laboratories of Alan Davidson at Massachusetts General Hospital and McMahon at Harvard University and USC.

In addition to advancing the research careers of O’Brien and a series of future fellows, the Broads’ $2 million gift supports core research facilities and innovative projects at USC. Philanthropic leaders in biomedical research as well as many other fields, Eli and Edythe Broad created USC’s stem cell research center with a gift of $30 million to the Keck School of Medicine of USC in February 2006. Eli Broad is also a member of the Board of Overseers of the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

“I’m honored to have been chosen by the committee, and thank The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for their generous contribution to establish the award,” said O’Brien. “This fellowship will support my research related to Phf19 and its role in kidney stem cells. It will also provide opportunities to develop new skills and tools that will help establish my career as an independent scientist dedicated to understanding kidney stem cells, so that we can utilize this knowledge to develop regenerative therapies for patients with kidney disease.”

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