We are proud to announce that Ya-Chieh Hsu, PhD, has been selected by the Pew Charitable Trust to receive an early-career award that will fund her research for the next four years.
Hsu joined the Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology (HSCRB) as an assistant professor in 2014, at which time she also became Principal Faculty at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Her research is focused on uncovering the function and potential of transit-amplifying skin cells, which play a key role in tissue development, regeneration, and are especially sensitive to chemotherapy drugs. Understanding the role these cells play in skin regeneration could lead to the development of therapies that alleviate or prevent some of the side effects of chemotherapy, such as hair loss and compromised wound healing.
We asked Hsu to share her impressions upon receiving the award.
Q: Can you tell us about your current research? What are your goals?
A: For decades biologists have believed that stem cells are key for understanding regeneration, repair, and disease. However, the number of differentiated cells – those that make up the different tissues of the body such as liver, brain, muscle or skin – is vast compared to the small number of stem cells. Moreover, many stem cells spend most of their time in a dormant state without doing much.
How can a small group of highly dormant cells generate the large bulk of tissues needed for daily wear and tear, or replace damaged tissues?
It turns out that stem cells generate transit amplifying cells (TACs), a highly proliferative progeny, to expand the system and produce diverse cell types downstream. In other words, TACs are the true workforce of regeneration and repair. However, since the field has been very “stem cell-centric,” we know very little about the biology of TACs. In my laboratory, we have a strong interest in elucidating their function.
To understand disease mechanisms and develop effective therapies, we think there is a need to know more about TACs and not just the stem cells. Using the regenerating hair follicles as a model, our current research centers on identifying how TACs regulate surrounding cell types in the skin. These studies are key to understand fundamental principles for regeneration and repair but will also be important for understanding the side effect of chemotherapy, which target highly proliferating TACs but spare the dormant stem cells.
Our goal is to apply what we learned here to prevent, treat, or alleviate detrimental side effects associated with chemotherapy and potentially other conditions that might be related to TACs.
Q: The Pew biomedical program highlights the importance of interdisciplinary thinking and collaboration. How does this align with your current research and your position at HSCI?
A: I am a fan of interdisciplinary research and collaboration. As a relatively young lab, being able to work together with other collaborators has helped both sides achieve things that none of us could have done alone and opened new exciting areas of inquiry. For this reason, I am very grateful to be a part of the HSCI community, which connects stem cell researchers working on diverse disciplines across Harvard and its affiliated hospitals.
I am also a founding member and an active participant of the HSCI skin program, which connects skin biologists within Harvard. These interactions are essential for the types of projects we work on. Just to name one example, my lab has been able to expand its research from epithelial tissues, which I was most familiar with, to many other diverse cell types in the skin. This was possible thanks to the diverse expertise we can connect to within HSCI.
What I have come to realize is that if I am interested in expanding my research portfolio to a new area, I can almost always find an expert within HSCI to talk to. It is a true privilege to work in such an environment.
Q: You are one of the 22 early-career researchers selected as 2017 Pew Scholars in Biomedical Science. What does this award mean to you and your career?
A: The Pew Charitable Trust has a long-standing history in supporting early-career scientists. Many of the scientists who I have long admired were once Pew scholars, so I am both honored and humbled to become one. The opportunity to interact with other Pew scholars and be a part of this intellectually exciting community is one of the most valuable aspects of this award.
I am very much looking forward to the annual spring retreat in which I will have a chance to meet many other fellow Pew Scholars in person! The Pew Charitable Trusts also provides essential support for research at the most critical initial stage so that high-risk, high-reward projects will have an opportunity to flourish. This award means a lot to both my lab and myself, and we are grateful for the support.