Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program | Spotlight

Biology trio advances stem cell research at City of Hope

Internship program exposes CSULA students to possible cure, treatment of diseases

Pictured: (l-r) City of Hope mentor Jing-Kuan Yee and CSULA biology senior Victor Liao.
L-r: City of Hope mentor Jing-Kuan Yee and CSULA biology senior Victor Liao.

Donning white lab coats and working alongside trained biologists, three Cal State L.A. students are making important contributions to research and development of stem cell-based therapies for treating diseases.

Through CSULA’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program, biology majors Prasanthi Durvasula, Victor Liao and Eui Joon Park have begun their six-month, full-time stipend-supported internships at City of Hope stem cell research laboratories this month.

The joint program with Cal Poly Pomona—which is funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM)—aims to provide comprehensive stem cell training and research opportunities for qualified CSULA and Cal Poly Pomona students.

According to Professors Sandra Sharp and Robert Nissen, the CSULA faculty liaisons for the CIRM Bridges Program, “By exposing students to the science of stem cells and to stem cell research, the Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program hopes to attract undergraduates and graduate students to careers in the field. The program contributes to the funding of laboratory supplies for interns and of curriculum development in the areas of stem cells and cell culture.”

Pictured: CSULA graduate student Prasanthu Durvasula.

While at City of Hope, Durvasula is working with mentor John Rossi to create a system to activate a gene necessary to maintain and expand primitive blood stem cells, which have the potential to develop into a variety of different cell types in the human body. The target for this system is a gene called KLF4, a master switch for maintaining stem cells in this pluripotent state. The project takes advantage of a small RNA (ribonucleic acid) that blocks a naturally occurring inhibitor of KLF4 expression. Expressing this small RNA would allow KLF4 protein to be made in human hematopoietic progenitor cells and will in turn increase expression of other important stem cell maintenance proteins.

Durvasula, who is pursuing a post-baccalaureate biotechnology certificate at CSULA, explained, “I am fortunate to be able to work toward expanding pluripotent stem cells in the test tube, such that they can later be used in transplant settings for the treatment of a variety of diseases.”

A biology senior, Liao’s research at City of Hope focuses on forcing adult human connective tissue cells, called fibroblasts, to express a protein called Oct4, which is expected to induce the fibroblasts to convert into the type of cells which develop instead into blood cells. He will be looking for the appearance of a protein called CD45 on the cells, which will signal successful conversion to the blood cell lineage.

Liao remarked, “Ultimately, I will be directing the immature blood cells down the pathway to become red blood cells instead of white blood cells by inducing the pathway with a protein called erythropoietin. If successful red blood cells can be generated, then the possibility for expression of adult hemoglobin—unlike some other types of stem cells which produce fetal hemoglobin—can help bring future research closer to the possibility of human clinical trials, such as engraftment of the fully matured red blood cells for cure of sickle cell anemia.”

Pictured: CSULA biology senior Eui Joon Park.

Park, a senior in biology, is investigating the connection between telomerase function, and cellular growth and senescence in the budding yeast, Saccaromyces cerevisiae, that may help in the prevention of degenerative diseases.

“While the capacity for most cells in the body to propagate through cell division is finite, stem cells possess a relatively unlimited ability to divide,” said Park, who is working with mentor Adam Bailis at the City of Hope. “This differential ability is a fundamental characteristic of stem cells, and is conferred by the expression of telomerase, which is an enzyme required for the maintenance of chromosome ends. I will study the contribution of telomerase to this property of stem cells by creating mutations in EST2—the gene that encodes the catalytic subunit of telomerase in this budding yeast, and determine their effects on the cell division and biological aging properties of this experimentally tractable model eukaryotic species.”

Additionally, two CSULA graduate students Xian (Marissa) Chen and Julie Kim are currently interning at Scripps Research Institute and USC, respectively, for a one-year period as part of the CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program. To begin this summer, CSULA’s Master of Science biology student Etana Kopin will also intern at the City of Hope.

The CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program selected 10 students (three undergraduates and two graduate students from each CSU campus, Los Angeles and Pomona) to participate in the stem cell research internships. The interns were chosen by CSULA and Cal Poly Pomona CIRM Bridges Program faculty based on the students’ academic qualifications. All interns participate in a one-week Stem Cell Techniques Training course at USC or UC Riverside in a CIRM Research Laboratory prior to or during the internships. They were matched with a research mentor from one of the four host institutions—Caltech, City of Hope, Scripps Research Institute or USC—as well as with a CSULA-Cal Poly Pomona Bridges Program faculty member who would help guide them during their internships. Upon completion of their internships, interns will give presentations on their research at a CSULA-Cal Poly Pomona symposium.

Student comments:

  • “For me, the CIRM Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program is an opportunity to explore my growing interest in science and gain exposure to a vital aspect of patient care, namely the research being done to bridge the gap between diagnosis and treatment. I hope to be an asset to the healthcare field one day and I believe challenging myself to gain a developed skill set and understanding of the problem-solving methods involved in bridging this gap will lend itself to a career in medicine.” -- Prasanthi Durvasula

  • “My career goal is to become a medical doctor. This internship opportunity really opened up many options on how I can approach this goal. At City of Hope research facility, I attended joint lab meetings with other research labs and sit through seminars that make me realize that the research done here is sincerely dedicated to the advancement of medical science. How to cure cancer? How to cure sickle cell anemia? City of Hope strives to bring the research to clinical trials that can be very well integrated into the medical field someday. I am glad that I can be a part of not just applying the art of healing, but be a part of the discoverers who strive for the cure. This opportunity is an incredible stepping stone to my future career.” -- Victor Liao

  • “As I am pursuing a career in dentistry, I believe this internship experience could provide strong fundamentals to my future dental research involvement. In addition to the great opportunity of gaining work experience in a laboratory, the knowledge I would gain on the underlying principles behind stem cells will be of priceless value.” -- Eui Joon Park

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