From left, Eun Ji Chung, Larissa V. Rodríguez and Rong Zhang (Photos/Courtesy 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, MD, and Rong Zhang, PhD, DDS, from the Catherine and Joseph Aresty Department of Urology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, with Eun Ji Chung, PhD, from the Department of Biomedical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

Together, they hope to advance treatments beyond the current industry standard, which involves injecting 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, Rodríguez, Zhang and Chung 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 molecular signals 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 currently is testing this approach in rats with urinary incontinence, in hopes of eventually garnering supplementary grant funding to advance this work into clinical trials.

“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 also is 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 location, vice chair of academics for the Catherine and Joseph Aresty Department of Urology, and director of the FPMRS fellowship at the Keck School. “It disproportionately affects women. 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.”

— Cristy Lytal