CIRM Scholar Spotlight: Berkeley’s Maroof Adil on stem cell transplants for Parkinson’s disease

Maroof Adil, CIRM Scholar

Maroof Adil, CIRM Scholar

Stem cell therapy has a lot of potential for Parkinson’s patients and the scientists that study it. One of our very own CIRM scholars, Maroof Adil, is making it his mission to develop stem cell based therapies to treat brain degenerating diseases like Parkinson’s.

Maroof got his undergraduate degrees from MIT in both Chemical Engineering and Biology, and a PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Minnesota. As a graduate student, he dived into the world of cancer research and explored ways of delivering cancer-killing genes specifically to cancer cells in the body while leaving healthy tissues in the body unharmed.

While he enjoyed his time spent on cancer research, he realized his main interest was to apply his skills in chemical engineering and materials science to understand biological problems. This brought him to his current position as a postdoc at UC Berkeley in the Schaffer lab.

Maroof is doing some pretty cutting edge research to develop 3D biomaterials that will vastly improve the transplantation and survival of stem cell derived neurons (nerve cells) in the brain. Check out our exclusive interview with this talented scientist below!


Q: What are you working on and why?

MA: I have always been excited about finding engineering solutions to medically relevant problems. I decided to do a postdoc at UC Berkeley in David Schaffer’s lab because I wanted to combine chemical and materials engineering skills from my graduate research with stem cell technologies to solve biological problems. One of the exciting parts of Dave’s lab, and a reason why I joined, is that he is working on translational stem cell-based regenerative therapies for central nervous system diseases such as Parkinson’s and Huntington’s.

My current research is motivated by the need to find better therapies for these neurodegenerative diseases. While stem cell-based regenerative medicine is an up-and-coming field, there are still a lot of challenges that need to be addressed before stem cells can be successfully used in the clinic. There are three main challenges that are most relevant to my research. First, we need to improve the efficiency of stem cell differentiation, i.e. how well we can convert these stem cells to the mature, functional neurons that we need to treat neurodegenerative diseases. Second, after implanting these cells into the body, we need to increase their survival efficiency. This is because one of the main issues with stem cell-based transplants right now is that after implantation, most of these cells die. Given these first two challenges, we need to generate a lot of cells in order to effectively treat degenerative diseases. The third challenge is to make good quality, functional, transplantable cells in a large-scale fashion.

So given my chemical and materials engineering background, I wanted to see if we could use biologically inspired materials (biomaterials) to address some of these issues with stem cell differentiation and transplantation. In brief, we are developing functionalized biomaterials, differentiating stem cells within these biomaterials into neurons, characterizing the quality of these neurons, and testing the function of these stem cell-derived neurons in animal models of disease.

A major focus of our lab is to develop 3D biomaterials to increase the efficiency of large-scale production of clinical-grade stem cells [and the mature cells that are derived from them]. Our preliminary results suggest that we can get higher numbers of better quality neurons when we differentiate and grow them in 3D biomaterials compared to when they are traditionally grown on a flat, 2D tissue culture surface. Presently, I’m trying to verify that our 3D method works in the lab. If it does, this technology could help us save a lot of time and resources in generating the type of cells we need for effective cell replacement therapies.

Stem cells growing as clusters in 3D[1]Neurons generated in 3D platforms 1[1]

Stem cell derived neurons grown in 3D cultures (left) and generated on 3D biomaterials (right). Images courtesy of Maroof Adil.

Q: Your research sounds fascinating but complicated. How are you doing it?

MA: It’s certainly a multidisciplinary project, and constantly requires us to draw ideas from diverse fields including polymer chemistry, developmental biology and chemical engineering. I am very grateful to be part of a resourceful lab, to my mentors, and to have amazing, motivated people working with me. UC Berkeley provides a highly collaborative work environment. So for some of the follow-up work that further characterizes the quality of these stem cells and their mature cell derivatives, we are collaborating with other labs at UC Berkeley and at UCSF.

Q: Are you interested in applying this work to other brain diseases?

MA: Certainly. Although we are primarily working on generating stem cell-derived dopaminergic neurons, which are the major cell type that die in Parkinson’s patients, I’m also interested in applying similar biomaterials to derive other types of neurons, for instance medium spiny neurons for Huntington’s disease.

The advantage of some of the materials we are working with is their modular nature. That is, we can tune their properties so that they are useful for other applications.

Q: In your opinion what is the future of stem cells in your field? Will they bring cures?

MA: I am very hopeful given what I’m seeing right now in the scientific literature, and in clinical trials for stem cell-based therapies in general. Right now, there are several trials that are testing the benefit and safety of stem cell-based transplants in different diseases. However, right now there are no clinical trials applying stem cell-derived neurons to treat brain diseases. But I think there’s certainly a lot of promise. There are challenges that we need to address in this field, and some of these I outlined earlier. Researchers are working on finding solutions to these problems, and I think that if we find them, the chances of successfully finding cures will be higher.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a CIRM Scholar.

MA: I started as a CIRM scholar in 2014. It was really great to have a source of funding that lined up with what I was interested in, which was doing translational work in regenerative medicine.

I first began working with stem cells when I started my postdoc career, but I didn’t really have a background in this area. So being new to the stem cell field, I felt that CIRM provided the support structure that I needed. And I’m not just referring to funding. CIRM brings scientists with different scientific backgrounds together in one place, where we can learn from one another, and initiate fruitful collaborations. Being a CIRM scholar makes me feel like I’m part of a bigger community, with other scientists conducting very different, but related stem cell research.

Also, I am a big fan of the CIRM blog. I am able to learn about patients and about other researcher’s backgrounds. It helps you realize that patients and researchers are part of the same field. And I like that concept of bringing the field closer: patients towards researchers and researchers towards patients. I think that is useful to boost motivation for researchers, and to give patients a better idea of what we do.

Through CIRM, we’ve had a chance to go out into the local community and present some of our research. For example, the past two years I’ve talked to local high school students during Stem Cell Awareness Week, and that was a really great experience.  I’ve presented to other professionals before, but never to those as young as high school students.  To me, it was quite exciting to realize that these kids are very much interested in the type of work we are doing, and to feel like I was able to influence them to potentially pursue science as a career.

Q: What are your career goals?

MA: I definitely want to stay in science and solve medically relevant problems. It could be nice to be faculty at a research university and in a position to pursue my own independent ideas at the interface of biomaterials and stem cell based therapies. An industry position working towards regenerative medicine or other biologically relevant applications is also an exciting possibility. At this point, being in science is my priority.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a scientist?

MA: The excitement you get when your experiments work out, and the joy of making new discoveries. I also like the thrill of designing experiments that may advance the field, and the feeling that what you’re doing day-to-day is contributing to a body of knowledge that others may find useful. I find it especially rewarding to be a scientist in the medical field, working on translational projects closely related to finding cures for diseases.

CIRM scholar Ke Wei talks heart regeneration

Ke Wei

Ke Wei

“How do you mend a broken heart?” was the topic of one of our recent Stem Cellar blogs highlighting a stellar CIRM-funded publication on the regenerative abilities of the protein FSTL1 following heart injury. One of the master-minds behind this study is co-first author Ke Wei. Ke is a postdoc in Dr. Mark Mercola’s lab at the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute located in balmy southern California. He also happens to be one of our prized CIRM scholars.

KeWeipatch

Cross sections of a healthy (control) or injured mouse heart. Injured hearts treated with patches containing FSTL1 show the most recovery of healthy heart tissue (red). Image adapted from Wei et al. 2015)

Upon hearing of Ke’s important and exciting accomplishments in the field of regenerative medicine for heart disease, we called him up to learn more about his scientific accomplishments and aspirations.

Q: Tell us about your research background and how you got into this field?

KW: I went to UCLA for my graduate school PhD, and I studied under Dr. Fabian Chen focusing on heart development. At that time, I mainly worked on very early heart development and other tissues like smooth muscle cells. For my graduate thesis work, I found that particular genes were important for smooth muscle development.

So I was trained as a heart developmental biologist, but after my PhD, I came to the Burnham Institute and I joined two labs: Dr. Mark Mercola and Dr. Pilar Ruiz-Lozano. They co-mentored me for the first couple of years of my postdoc. Mark is interested in using stem cells and high throughput screens to identify pharmaceutical compounds for inducing heart regeneration and treating heart diseases. Pilar is interested in the epicardium, the outer layer of the heart, which is known to play important roles during heart development. When I joined their labs, they had combined forces to study how the epicardium affects heart development and heart diseases.

In their labs, I used my developmental biologist background to combine in vitro stem cells based screening studies (Mark) and in vivo mouse embryonic heart development studies (Pilar) to dissect the function of the epicardium on heart development and disease.

Q: Tell us about your experience as a CIRM scholar and what you were able to accomplish.

KW: My two years of CIRM fellowship were separated but my focus was the same for both CIRM-funded periods: to understand the effect of the epicardium on heart development and diseases.

In my first project in 2008, we tried to generate an in vitro model of mouse epicardial cells and used those cells to study their influence on cardiac differentiation using both in vitro and in vivo experiments. We ran into a lot of technical difficulties, so at that time, we decided to switch to using existing in vitro epicardial cell lines, and using those to study their influence on cardiomyocytes (heart muscle cells).

In my second year of CIRM funding in 2011, we identified the genes and proteins that can promote immature cardiomyocytes to proliferate, and put them in vivo and it worked. So the success of our publication all started from my second year of CIRM-fellowship.

Q: What benefits did you experience as a CIRM scholar?

KW: I’ve really enjoyed being a CIRM scholar and took advantage of the resources they provided me over the years. One of the benefits I enjoyed the most was attending the CIRM annual meetings and retreats. I was able to talk with a lot of scientists with different backgrounds, and that really expanded my horizons.

As you can see from our paper in Nature, it’s definitely not only a developmental biologist paper. It’s actually very clinical and collaborative, and it was done by many different groups working together. By going to CIRM conferences and meeting all the other CIRM fellows, I got a lot of new ideas, and those ideas encouraged me to collaborate with more scientists. These events really encouraged me to look beyond the thoughts of a developmental biologist.

Our paper is co-authored by me and Vahid Serpooshan from Stanford. We co-first authored this paper, and my work mainly involved the in vitro studies that identified the regenerative proteins and their function in heart injury. Vahid’s approach was more bioengineering focused. He produced the FSTL1 patch, put it in the rodent heart, and conducted all the other in vivo studies. It was a perfect collaboration to push this project for publication in a high level journal like Nature.

Q: What is the big picture of your research and your future goals?

KW: I plan to stay in academia. The key thing about heart diseases is that heart regeneration is very limited. Using our approach, we found one particular protein that’s important to the regenerative process, and in reality, its concentration is very low in the heart when it’s infarcted (injured). I think we have set up a pretty good system to test all possible therapeutic means in the lab, including proteins from the epicardium, small molecules, microRNAs and other compounds to activate cardiomyocyte proliferation. I plan to focus on understanding the mechanisms for why cardiomyocytes stop proliferating in the adult heart, and what new approaches we can pursue to promote their expansion and regenerative abilities. The FSTL1 story is the start of this, and I will try to find new factors that can promote heart regeneration.

Q: Will your work involve human stem cell models?

KW: To make this study clinically relevant, we included the swine models. We are definitely testing FSTL1 in human cells right now. Currently we can produce a huge amount of the human cardiomyocytes. They seem to be at a different stage than rodent cells so we are optimizing the system to perform screens for human cell proliferation. When that system is set up, then anything that comes out of the screen will be much more relevant to clinical studies in humans.

Q: What is your favorite thing about being a scientist?

Knowing that the information I acquire through experiments is new to mankind, and that my actions expand the horizon of combined human knowledge, even just for a tiny bit, is a huge satisfaction to me as a scientist.