Graduate students’ lab skills help to earn funding for cutting-edge biomedical research
Above: The stem cell wizards of ASU’s Brafman Lab. Left to right: Sreedevi Raman, Josh Cutts, Nick Brookhouser and Christopher Potts. Photographer: Marco-Alexis Chaira/ASU
While clues to treating diseases that ravage the body and mind later in life sometimes appear in early stages of human development, studying a subject’s entire lifespan is neither efficient nor practical.
So how can researchers study these early stages to combat diseases that manifest themselves later on?
If you guessed through the use of pluripotent stem cells — so named because they have the ability to turn into other types of cells — then you’re right on the money.
ASU’s Brafman Lab is on the cutting edge of this branch of research, recently earning a $1.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health to study the mechanisms of early human neurodevelopment, and $225,000 from the Arizona Biomedical Research Commission to study the effects of aging and other risk factors for Alzheimer’s Disease.
Biomedical engineering Assistant Professor David Brafman, who heads the laboratory, credits his graduate students as crucial in securing these grants
“The graduate students’ hard work, creativity and dedication were critically important for generating the data to convince the reviewers that our approach was feasible and worth funding,” Brafman says of his students. “Too often the success of a lab is attributed to the [principal investigator] when it is the postdocs, grad students and research technicians who are down in the trenches doing the work.”
Not all heroes wear capes, some wear lab coats
The students working in the Brafman Lab often labor late into the night and sometimes on the weekend. They possess a special mix of a passion for their work and the knowledge that achieving potentially life-altering outcomes don’t come with a simple nine-to-five job.
The laboratory they work in combines developmental biology, genetic engineering and bioinformatics to investigate the various factors that can govern a stem cell’s fate. If they can figure out the mechanisms behind the stem cells’ multipotential futures, they could use that information to design targeted therapies for ailments like idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, heart failure and Alzheimer’s Disease.
Take Josh Cutts, who is pursuing his doctoral degree in biomedical engineering. He knows a thing or three about working in the Brafman Lab. He’s addicted to the thrill of discovery, regardless of any challenges or obstacles that may come his way.
“We’re working on things that haven’t been done before so it’s challenging — sometimes frustrating — to complete certain experiments or understand the results,” he says.
The shapeshifting nature of the stem cells can make working with them seem like biological wizardry. In the lab the research team has made stem cells into brain cells, heart cells, lung cells and more.
“Now we are working with cutting-edge brain organoids known colloquially as mini brains, which sounds a little eerie, to address many different research questions,” says Cutts, who earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biomedical engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. “It’s miraculous to work with these every day.”
Cutts’ work generated the preliminary data that helped the lab secure the NIH grant. After finishing his graduate work, this pluripotent scholar plans to earn a post doctorate degree to expand his knowledge and expertise. Long term, he hopes to contribute to translating stem cell technology to patients, in academia or industry.
Researcher Nick Brookhouser is working toward his doctorate in clinical translational sciences at the University of Arizona’s College of Medicine in Phoenix. His research in the Brafman Lab is focused on Alzheimer’s Disease and investigating the contribution of the Apolipoprotein E gene, or APOE, towards the disease’s progression.
He has successfully generated a set of stem cell lines from Alzheimer’s patients as well as other stem cell lines that serve as the control group in his research. He is currently working with gene editing techniques to investigate APOE’s relationship to Alzheimer’s.
Brookhouser’s work is also supported by an Arizona Biomedical Research Commission grant. He developed patient-specific pluripotent stem cell lines and brain cell lines, and with those lines he created a 3D neural culture system that models a brain for study. He has also been involved in testing and optimizing gene editing technologies.
In the future, he hopes to transition to more clinical-based research in the biotechnology industry. Long term he hopes to contribute to the development of cell-based therapies and work in clinical trials.
Doctoral student Sreedevi Raman has also been working on research related to Alzheimer’s Disease. Instead of experimenting with stem cells at their genesis, Raman is trying to make them old. She is intentionally accelerating the aging process of cells in a dish so that they may be used to model various age-related disorders.
Her work with induced pluripotent stem cells specifically has helped the Brafman Lab attain the ABRC grant. Raman can take adult stem cells and program them back into state where their fate is not yet assigned.
Christopher Potts, a research specialist with a professional science master’s degree from ASU, works with gene editing. His contribution to the team is comparable to using copy and paste for genes, but a bit more complicated. He’s using technologies like CRISPR (Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) to edit stem cell genomes.
“I am changing the DNA of stem cells. That’s pretty cool, right?” says Potts. “I think one of the coolest things about our lab is how each student has their own project and functions basically independently, but we all help each other and are able to do much more than we could on our own.”
He’s enjoying his research, but also looks forward to teaching a new generation of students in the future. He has a master’s degree in science education and taught high school for four years before joining the lab.
Potts has aspirations of starting a “new line” of scientists through a, “career in outreach or other high-level science education.”
The cells he works on use signaling pathways to regulate what they will become — like his multiple career options. “Right now, I am just hoping for some signals to help me differentiate,” he says.
A ‘close knit,’ supportive group
Just as Brafman relies on the hard work of his students, the entire lab team relies on one another to succeed.
“Our lab is pretty close-knit. We like to hang out together to socialize and I think that support system makes our lab more effective,” says Cutts. “If any of us are having a hard time with experiments or anything at all, you can rely on your lab members and especially [Brafman] to help you work it out.”
Like Cutts, Brookhouser values the highly collaborative environment in the lab that “has fostered strong professional relationships as well as lasting friendships.”
“Just as patient somatic cells can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent state, I feel that the skills and mentorship I have gained in this lab have allowed me to reach a ‘pluripotent’ state and primed me to differentiate down many different career paths in the future,” Brookhouser says.
Raman credits her positive collaborative learning experiences in the lab with helping her to make advances in research as well as open career possibilities for her future. Since she just started her doctoral work, she’s got a lot of research ahead of her. Luckily, she found a good place to start.