The Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Symposium sparked collaborations. (Photo by Sergio Bianco)

“The field of stem cell biology is one of our great convergence opportunities,” said USC Provost Michael Quick, addressing an audience of biologists, chemists, physicists, engineers, clinicians and many others. This diverse group came together for the Interdisciplinary Stem Cell Symposium, hosted by USC Stem Cell and the USC Medicine, Engineering, Science and Humanities (MESH) Academy.

As the leader of USC Stem Cell, Andy McMahon highlighted how this university-wide initiative promotes convergence—from shared research facilities, to fellowships and pilot collaborative research funding, to educational programs and scientific meetings.

“We launched USC Stem Cell as a cross-campus initiative about five years ago,” said McMahon, “and it seemed natural with the new initiative that Steve Kay is launching, the MESH Academy, to put ourselves together and hold this symposium.”

Kay and his colleague Amanda Mason introduced MESH’s mission to promote cross-disciplinary, cross-campus convergence.

“MESH focuses on innovation and entrepreneurship, connection among our scientists, and innovative education programs that leverage our transdisciplinary culture,” said Kay, Director of the MESH Academy. “Building this kind of cooperative culture is what this type of symposium is all about.”

Throughout the symposium, scientific talks demonstrated convergence in action through collaborations between researchers from different disciplines.

Stem Cell scientist Qi-Long Ying and chemist Chao Zhang are working together to use custom-designed chemicals as probes to understand the molecular underpinnings of stem cell self-renewal and differentiation.

Two interdisciplinary talks addressed a new imaging technology called FLIM. Stem Cell scientist Rong Lu and engineer Keyue Shen are using FLIM to more effectively identify blood stem cells based on their metabolic profiles. Amir Goldkorn from the Department of Medicine and Cosimo Arnesano from the Translational Imaging Center are using FLIM to track cancer cells as they transition in and out of an aggressive, cancer stem cell-like state. Both projects tap into expertise from the Translational Imaging Center, led by Scott Fraser.

Cancer biologist Min Yu and bioengineer Pin Wang outlined their approach for engineering a nano-particle to deliver a drug to treat breast cancer.

Continuing the cancer theme, Kay discussed how genes involved in regulating circadian rhythms also promote the proliferation of a deadly brain tumor called glioblastoma. His team is now using drug-like molecules to try to block the activity of these genes.

Physicist turned biologist Peter Kuhn talked about a “liquid biopsy,” which uses a simple blood draw to sample metastatic tumor cells circulating through a patient’s veins. In patients with prostate cancer, his team can use this biopsy to identify and target the underlying drivers of their disease with personalized drugs.

D. Brent Polk from Children’s Hospital Los Angeles underscored the process of how tissue repairs itself after the severe intestinal injury seen in inflammatory bowel disease. His team has identified the stem cell population important for this repair and regeneration.

Gerontologist Valter Longo talked about how cycles of periodic fasting—or near fasting—promote blood stem cell activation, self-renewal and regeneration both in young and old animals.

Several talks highlighted stem cell-based approaches to treat orthopaedic problems.

Denis Evseenko, Director of Skeletal Regeneration, discussed how to drive human stem cells to produce mature joint cartilage to treat arthritis. Evseenko’s team is preparing to apply for permission from the FDA to test these cells in a phase I clinical trial.

Yang Chai, Director of the Center for Craniofacial Molecular Biology, and the Center for Dental, Oral and Craniofacial Tissue and Organ Regeneration (C-DOCTOR), talked about using a 3D printed scaffold, loaded with stem cells, to repair large skull injuries that cannot otherwise heal. The project is partially funded by the Alfred Mann Institute (AMI) for Biomedical Engineering at USC. As part of the presentation, Winn Hong from AMI talked briefly how this institute promotes entrepreneurship among USC faculty.

Jay R. Lieberman, Chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, talked about using gene therapy to repair large bone fractures and injuries that don’t heal. Lieberman’s team is determining the best way to deliver the therapy—such as 3D printed scaffolds as carriers for gene-edited stem cells.

Immunologist Paula Cannon addressed gene editing tools, which she is optimizing in blood stem cells with the goal of treating HIV.

Several scientists described how they’re using stem cells to model human disease and engineer tissues.

Stem cell scientist Giorgia Quadrato introduced her research about human “mini-brains” called organoids, which can offer insights into diseases ranging from autism to macrocephaly.

Biju Thomas from the Department of Ophthalmology shared a potential cell therapy to treat retinal diseases, such as dry age-related macular degeneration.

Stem cell scientist Justin Ichida is studying motor nerve cells derived from a diverse group of patients with ALS. Using these patient-specific cells, his lab is testing the theory that personalized medicine is important for neurological diseases.

Engineer Megan McCain is modeling human disease by building scaffolds and miniature devices for growing functional heart and skeletal muscle in the laboratory.

Expanding on the theme of convergence, Kyle McClary, founder of the USC Bridge Art and Science Alliance, discussed efforts to communicate science to the public through various art forms.

In the keynote address, Peter G. Schultz, President and CEO of the Scripps Research Institute highlighted his group’s approach for identifying potential drugs that change cell behavior for various chronic diseases such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, liver disease and cancer. After the presentation, Schultz offered to screen his synthesized library for possible ALS therapies, in collaboration with USC Stem Cell scientist Justin Ichida.

Attendees also connected during a poster session and presentations, and had the opportunity to chat with potential collaborators during lunch, coffee breaks and a reception.

“It’s so good to see many from a variety of different disciplines here in the room today,” said Quick. “So I hope that this symposium will lead to a number of interdisciplinary collaborations, and a number of convergence opportunities for USC and beyond.” 

Mentioned in this article: Andrew P. McMahon, PhD, FRS, Qi-Long Ying, MD, PhD, Amir Goldkorn, MD, Scott E. Fraser, PhD, Rong Lu, PhD, Keyue Shen, PhD, Min Yu, MD, PhD, Pin Wang, PhD, Peter Kuhn, PhD, D. Brent Polk, MD, Valter Longo, PhD, Denis Evseenko, MD, PhD, Yang Chai, DDS, PhD, Jay R. Lieberman, MD, Paula Cannon, PhD, Giorgia Quadrato, PhD, Megan McCain, PhD