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Interns Advance Stem Cell Discoveries

Published: June 1, 2015

The mysterious thing about Huntington’s disease is why it affects the nervous system specifically.

The disease is a progressive brain disorder that in advanced stages causes uncontrolled movements, among other symptoms. What scientists know is that the disease is caused by a problem with the HTT gene (huntingtin gene). When defective, the cell creates an abnormally long version of the Huntingtin protein, which then wreaks havoc on neurons. Why it doesn’t affect other cells as potently is unknown. How it affects cells is also a question.

Students from CSULB’s Biotechnology Certificate Program have been studying the disease in Professor Leslie Thompson’s laboratory over the past few years. Thompson, who teaches at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), is one of the principal investigators in an international consortium of researchers dedicated to understanding the disease with the goal of finding treatments.

Biotechnology intern Elizabeth Falat is the latest CSULB student to be hosted in Thompson’s lab, giving her a front row seat as they take tissue samples from Huntington patients and create induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). iPSCs can be reprogrammed into any type of human cell, and have been important in helping scientists figure out what happens to diseased cells and discover cures.

The opportunity for CSULB students to gain entrance to some of Southern California’s top stem cell research labs is the result of a grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Through the grant, CSULB faculty have been able to create new courses for biology and chemistry majors, and to offer new stem cell modules in a large general education class. A new course in stem cell biology is also being offered at a local community college. But the lion’s share of the money goes to training interns in research.

Students accepted into the stem cell option in the certificate program receive a stipend of $26,520 and up to $7,000 in tuition for performing 10-month internships where they are trained in labs at the City of Hope or UCI.

CIRM recently committed to a seventh year of funding to CSULB, reaching just over $3.5 million in total funding for students interested in careers in stem cell research.

“We’re looking at thousands of students benefiting from the grant in general education classes, hundreds in specialized classes, and nearly 70 in the internship program,” said Professor Lisa Klig, professor of molecular genetics, who oversees the program with developmental biology Professor Elizabeth Eldon.

This year’s cohort of 10 interns studied various neurodegenerative diseases, brain cancer, blood-brain barrier cells, and spinal cord repair. Ayla Manughian-Peter is an intern at Professor Aileen Anderson’s lab at UCI investigating the role of inflammatory mechanisms in injured spinal cords. She said much of her time has been spent using live cell imaging to examine the effects of inflammatory complement proteins on neural stem cells.

“The CSULB CIRM grant allows me access to research facilities and experience that I otherwise would not have,” Manughian-Peter said. Her goal is to complete an M.S. in cell biology and pursue a career in biomedical research. Working alongside other lab members of varying experience levels, she said, has also highlighted the different paths she can take in order to achieve her career goals.

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At the same time that students are gaining valuable hands-on experience, researchers are receiving well-trained students who can work in their labs.

A point of pride for Klig is that the program has received “unbelievably flattering responses” from the heads of labs. She noted that students from the CSULB program are highly sought after because the caliber of students coming from it is high. Throughout the year students receive career counseling, advising and mentoring.

Klig and Eldon are also thrilled that students are getting the opportunity to apply what they’re learning and to figure out what direction they want to take with their careers. The goal of the program is not to place students on a specific track, Klig said, adding, “Students are encouraged to go a lot of different ways with this, and that’s what makes it distinct from other programs.”

According to Klig and Eldon, who have been tracking the outcomes of each cohort, all of the interns have stayed in the science field to some degree. Within a few months of completing the internship program, 98 percent of students went on to obtain jobs or begin training in the fields that they had studied.

Melissa Jones was an intern in the first cohort who went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. She said the CIRM CSULB program gave her the opportunity to actualize her dream of studying in the stem cell field.

“The internship helped me realize that I want to focus on biomedical research, specifically on utilizing stem cells as treatments for human disorders,” Jones said. “I learned a number of techniques in my internship and have applied these ideas to my graduate studies.”

Recent graduate Keona Wang is one of 10 new interns selected for the seventh cohort, which will begin working in labs this Fall. Wang is a chemistry and biochemistry major, who developed an interest in stem cell during her time at CSULB. She hopes to work as a lab technician in stem cell research labs.

“This grant allows the existence of a wonderful program, allowing students like me to gain valuable experiences working in well-established research labs,” Wang said. “As much as I loved being here as an undergrad, I’m beyond thrilled to start the internship and continue toward my goals.”