Press Release

National Academy of Inventors elects four Keck School of Medicine of USC faculty as senior members

Innovations developed by researchers include stem-cell based technologies and tests that enable personalized cancer care.

Wayne Lewis February 27, 2024
Headshots of Yang Chai, Denis Evseenko, Justin Ichida and Peter Kuhn, National Academy of Inventors 2024 class of senior members

Clockwise from top left – Yang Chai, Denis Evseenko, Peter Kuhn and Justin Ichida, NAI 2024 class of senior members. (Chai photo/ Chris Shinn; Evseenko and Ichida photos/Richard Carrasco; Kuhn photo/Peter Zhaoyu Zhou)


The National Academy of Inventors (NAI), a nonprofit member organization that encourages inventors in higher education, has announced that four researchers from the Keck School of Medicine of USC are part of its 2024 class of senior members.

Election as an NAI senior member recognizes remarkable innovation producing technologies that have brought, or aspire to bring, real impact on the welfare of society. The honor also represents growing success in patents, licensing and commercialization, while educating and mentoring the next generation of inventors.

The following faculty members will officially join the ranks of 553 senior members worldwide on June 17, 2024, during the NAI’s annual meeting:

  • Yang Chai, DDS, PhD, University Professor, George and MaryLou Boone Chair in Craniofacial Molecular Biology and Associate Dean of Research at the Herman Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC; University Professor of Biomedical Sciences, Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, and Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School
  • Denis Evseenko, MD, PhD, the Keck School’s J. Harold and Edna La Briola Chair in Genetic Orthopaedic Research, Vice Chair for Research, Director of Skeletal Regeneration and Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery, Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine
  • Justin Ichida, PhD, John Douglas French Alzheimer’s Foundation Associate Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Keck School; New York Stem Cell Foundation-Robertson Investigator
  • Peter Kuhn, PhD, Dean’s Professor of Biological Sciences at USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences; Professor of Medicine and Urology at the Keck School; Professor of Biomedical Engineering and of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering; Director of the Convergent Science Institute in Cancer at the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience

The awardees drew praise for their commitment to patient impact and the interdisciplinary breadth of their studies from the Keck School of Medicine’s dean, Carolyn Meltzer, MD.

“Our school’s 2024 NAI senior members-elect exemplify the combination of bold thinking and core compassion it takes to tackle the biggest challenges in health,” said Meltzer, May S. and John H. Hooval, M.D., Dean’s Chair and professor of radiology. “They understand that diseases don’t care about boundaries between academic fields, so they work and collaborate as though those boundaries don’t exist. I’m immensely proud to call them colleagues, and even more excited to see what they do next.”

Yang Chai: Healing deformities of the face and head

Chai has invented a system meant to regenerate skull bone to address deformities, comprising a 3D-printed scaffold seeded with stem cells. The technology comes out of discoveries from his laboratory about the molecular and cellular mechanisms behind congenital birth defects.

Chai recently launched early interactions with the Food and Drug Administration, on the path to phase 1 trials of the scaffolds in patients. In addition, he continues work toward an innovative tissue regeneration system for patients with cleft palate, a condition that is the major focus of his work. His research is motivated by his own experience as a clinician interacting with parents of children born with deformities to the face and head.

“The surgery was always successful, but I didn’t have any answers about why the birth defect happened, whether a future child in the family may also have one, or how it could be prevented,” he said. “We tried to understand the basic mechanisms, then shifted our efforts to use some of the knowledge we gained. We aim to provide a biological solution for a biological problem, instead of using a titanium plate to repair the skull defects.”

Chai, who was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2018, particularly appreciates that the selection process leading to NAI senior membership engages scientists like him.

“We’re in the business of innovation,” he said. “You create knowledge, you try to make some breakthroughs that can impact patients and, on top of that, you go through the process for patenting an invention. When your peers recognize what you’ve done, it’s incredible. I’m very honored.”

While Chai’s work has bridged from the operating room to the lab and beyond, he underlines that invention is a team sport.

“This type of work truly takes a village,” he said. “We can’t do this alone. I’m deeply appreciative not only for funding support but also the people guiding us in handling the intellectual property and seeking FDA approval. We’re very fortunate to have support from USC’s group of experts.”

Denis Evseenko: Innovation addressing arthritis and joint injury

Evseenko has created a series of treatment technologies that address injury and illness of the joints.

One is an injection designed to calm inflammation in osteoarthritis and potentially supplant joint replacement surgery. (Phase 1 clinical trials are imminent.) Another is a surgical implant that delivers stem cell-derived cartilage to replace damaged tissue from sports injuries and prevent degenerative joint disease, with first-in-human trials likely to begin this year. Most recently, Evseenko and his team have invented a drug to moderate a mechanism of the immune system that misfires and attacks aging cells, with potential application for inflammation affecting multiple body systems.

For Evseenko, election to the NAI validates the time and effort he has devoted to driving his discoveries from the lab to application.

“It’s meaningful to know that all the small steps we took, day after day, to move us forward toward our goals were leading in a fruitful direction,” he said. “I had to make some difficult decisions along the way, and this recognition tells me that they were the right ones.”

One thrill of his forthcoming NAI recognition was sharing the news with his mother. Both of his parents were university faculty members in the former Soviet Union, but their careers were disrupted by the collapse of that nation. They had encouraged Evseenko and his brother to work in science, and his election represents a culmination of their hopes.

“It’s probably a bigger deal for my mother than for me,” he said. “One of her dreams was that one of her kids would earn an honor like this. After the turbulence she’s been through, it’s a huge, healing moment that goes beyond just the professional aspect.”

Justin Ichida: Probing ALS at the cellular level

Ichida centers his research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a rare, deadly neurodegenerative disorder that occurs during middle age and disrupts the ability to control muscle movement. He has developed a technology that can turn cells from ALS patients’ blood samples into nerve cells.

The invention is one of the first successful attempts to drive the development of adult cells backward to the stem cell stage and then coax them to grow into a different type of cell. From the Petri dish, he and his team can then delve into the mechanisms behind the illness — which are yet poorly understood — and test potential treatments.

“ALS has a huge unmet need,” Ichida said. “It’s hard to study by traditional methods because we don’t know what the genetic causes are for most patients. Our technology allows us to unlock insights that we couldn’t otherwise.”

He views his NAI senior membership in light of the many eminent inventors already associated with the organization.

“A number of people whom I really admire have been elected members of the NAI,” he said. “It’s an honor to now be in the company of those people. This holds a special place for me.”

Even in a moment of individual recognition, Ichida speaks of his appreciation for the many people who helped make his work possible. These encompass supportive USC colleagues including technology transfer personnel, as well as federal grantors, nonprofit funding agencies and the professionals focusing on commercializing his innovations.

“They really made it happen,” he said. “We were able to make huge strides both with the resources to explore and with the hard work of people who go beyond what I’m doing to get the technology out into the world.”

Peter Kuhn: Reimagining cancer care for the precision medicine era

After early success in drug development for cancer, Kuhn turned his sights to leading the charge in advancing liquid biopsies, a type of blood test that detects and characterizes circulating tumor cells. Although he focuses on breast cancer, a disease his mother faced, his inventions have been applied for treating prostate cancer as well. His technology has been in use for oncology care since 2016.

A personal highlight was when others started using his invention and the thrill derived from seeing that success: A colleague published a clinical study showing that one of his inventions was effective in differentiating between which patients would benefit from one treatment over another in fighting cancer.

“That was the best day of my life, and I didn’t even know about the study before it came out,” Kuhn said with a smile. “It wasn’t just seeing this striking result. It was knowing that they could do it without me. There are a lot of hurdles, and it’s an incredible feeling when something makes it through — and makes a difference for patients.”

He appreciates the NAI honor as a milestone, but also keeps his sights set firmly on the future.

“This recognition is fantastic,” he said. “It’s a marker along the journey; it demonstrates a path. But it’s really about where that path leads.”

Kuhn sees his work in science and engineering as one spoke in a larger wheel that includes the clinician and the patient. Indeed, he notes, patients have a very important role to play.

“My ultimate dream is that every woman not only gets screened for breast cancer but also participates in research,” he said. “I want it to be seen as the most obvious and normal thing to do. I’d love to see a research environment in which everybody plays their own part, and is proud of playing that part.”

Learn more about how Keck School of Medicine faculty drive innovation in biomedical science and patient care.