Junior Faculty Programs examine fundamental stem cell biology

For those of us who've been around for a while, we know that our ability to heal or recover from our injuries or illnesses can take longer than it used to when we were young. That's one real life example of what may be the result of changes that occur in stem cells as we age. The latest Junior Faculty Program to be supported by HSCI takes a close look at this phenomenon and the molecular pathways of aging in stem cells. Keeping with the tradition of earlier Junior Faculty Programs, the convening members are approaching the study from multiple angles, including the effects of aging on blood production (Derrick Rossi, PhD, and Benjamin Ebert, MD), muscle (Andrew Brack, PhD), the cardiovascular system (Caroline Burns, PhD), and the viability of pluripotent stem cells (Alex Meissner, PhD).

The HSCI Junior Faculty Programs are unique in their support for highly collaborative, "high risk/high return" projects. The research proposed by the faculty members typically explores new approaches in which their individual labs can accelerate their own work by collaborating with others to tackle a large question. By pooling their efforts, junior faculty members can secure funding from HSCI to pursue their ideas, which can then be further supported with outside grants as the results roll in. The programs not only offer a chance to make bold new discoveries, but they also serve as an important bridge to stability at the early stage of a scientist's career.

In 2006, a cadre of six HSCI junior faculty members considered the merits of mining the fundamental biology that underlies the behavior of stem cells. It was the beginning of a remarkably successful and dynamic program that supported a collaborative group of young investigators across five HSCI-affiliated institutions. Several breakthroughs have emerged from the Cell Development Program, including the discovery by Konrad Hochedlinger, PhD, of the sequence of molecular events that occurs during the conversion of adult stem cells into embryonic-like stem cells, the demonstration by Amy Wagers, PhD, of muscle regeneration using stem cells in a model of muscular dystrophy, and a landmark study by Kevin Eggan, PhD, showing that human pluripotent stem cells can be derived from the cells of patients suffering from a genetically-based disease, in this case amyotrphic lateral sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease).

Inspired by the success of this first Junior Faculty Program, a second crop of young investigators gathered around an effort called the Stem Cell Regulation Program, which looks at the molecular pathways that regulate stem cell differentiation and maintenance in both normal development and disease. HSCI investigators Paola Arlotta, PhD, Chad Cowan, PhD, Richard Gregory, PhD, Hanno Hock, PhD, and Carla Kim, PhD, recognized that one of the greatest obstacles to generating tissue specific cells in the laboratory at will is that the methods used to derive and maintain specialized cells from embryonic or induced pluripotent stem cells are still very inefficient, and knowledge of the molecular pathways that lead to differentiation is poorly defined.

With a third program underway, the Junior Faculty programs have become a major component of HSCI's impact on the field of stem cell biology and the Harvard scientific community, and an indispensable resource for supporting early scientific careers.