For this month’s blog, our two newest scientists kindly agreed to answer some questions. We are so thrilled to have these two scientists on our team.
What is your research background?
[Dr. Cleber Trujillo] I'm a biologist with a PhD in Biochemistry focusing on the role of neurotransmitters in neural physiology and development. While studying neurotransmission signaling at the University of Sao Paulo, I developed an interest in modeling neurodevelopmental disorders. At the University of California San Diego, I took advantage of reprogramming technologies to generate stem cells to recapitulate the early stages of the human brain and model different syndromes, showing a promising cellular tool to facilitate therapeutic drug screening. More recently, I developed human cortical organoids that dynamically change cellular populations during maturation and exhibit consistent increases in electrical activity over the span of several months. At StemoniX, I bring these models and skill to functional, high-throughput neural screening approaches to identify new targets and compounds for drug discovery by bringing patient biology to the bench.
[Dr. Jorge Urresti] I completed a PhD in molecular and cellular biology at Vall d'Hebron Institute of Research (Barcelona, Spain). Although my passion is more about Neuroscience and Stem Cell Biology, there were not specific programs for those where I did my graduate work. I am lucky I was always able to work on related projects; so with experience, I was able to cultivate enough knowledge about brain biology and stem cells to become an expert in developing and implementing stem cell-based neural models.
What drew you to this job?
[Dr. Trujillo] As most scientists use stem cells for disease modeling, I would like to have the opportunity to find new phenotypes in iPSC-derived neurons to suggest possible treatments in vitro. I believe, at Vyant Bio we can go one step further. We can use these cellular models to screen for new lead compounds and propose disease-specific treatments for further clinical assessment. During my years of academic life, I thought that this possibility was far from my reach. In fact, my wife, who worked side-by-side with me since early on, was the one that pushed me to new opportunities in a biotech setting. If not for her, I would never have the opportunity to close the scientific and treatment loop in which we reprogram patient cells into stem cells, find relevant phenotypes, and push new treatments through the drug discovery pipeline.
[Dr. Urresti] Well, considering my most recent and favorite projects were using stem cells for disease modeling of neurological diseases, I was always interested and excited to hear about the work that StemoniX was doing. I always saw it as an outstanding place to develop my career if I ever wanted to leave academia, and when that happened, I was happy to find they were recruiting. So, it was a no-brainer for me.
What do you see as the biggest challenges in the field of neuroscience? Biggest opportunities?
[Dr. Trujillo] I believe that until recently, cellular and molecular neuroscience were the main forces boosting our knowledge of the brain, especially animal brains. We are now moving to a higher level of observation; the Human Connectome Project tries to connect the individual pieces - moving away from individual cells - to determine major brain pathways and their circuitries. I believe that with these fundamental milestones, we will be able to tackle one of the most fundamental questions in science, "What makes us unique?". Understanding the cellular basis of the network formation at a macroscopic level could help us establish the foundation of the human conscience and how in specific situations (genetic alterations, brain disorders, or even psychotropics), the human mind can be changed. At a minimum, this understanding will guide the development of new and more targeted therapeutic strategies. However, it is difficult to investigate the living human brain for several ethical reasons as well as for material accessibility. Cellular models that can recapitulate some of the complex signatures of the molecular, cellular, and functional brain network provide one of the most promising tools for the Neuroscience field. I am biased here, but I believe the ever-evolving brain organoid models can fill this gap and open a new path for even more exciting questions.
[Dr. Urresti] Talking specifically about disease modeling, I think we are at the doorstep of transformational discoveries that will change the paradigm of how we see healthcare. From using stem cells as therapies themselves, to using them to generate models and platforms for drug discovery, the possibilities are almost endless. I believe being able to generate organoids that reflect complex native organ-level biology using patient-derived cells and then using them to develop and screen personalized treatments is going to gather a lot of interest from clinical facilities as soon as neuroscience can put together the infrastructure to do so conveniently. I especially see this booming in the oncology field. Stem cell models are also opening new venues for therapies for difficult-to-treat disorders such as autism, Alzheimer’s, and dementia, and I believe we will learn important new insights thanks to the work we are doing.
If you could have a conversation with any biologist or biology-related person (from any time in history – just go with it!), who would it be and why?
[Dr. Trujillo] Since my starting day in science at the Chemistry Institute of the University of Sao Paulo (Brazil), I was exposed to the weird idea that ATP, a well-known intercellular energy coin, could be released and serve as a messenger among neurons and astrocytes. I found this purinergic neurotransmitter signaling interesting and started to investigate its properties and interactions with other systems and drive the generation of new neurons from stem cells. A few years later, I learned the true story behind the purinergic discovery by Geoffrey Burnstock. I would like to talk with him about his perseverance.
In the late 60s, Burnstock was a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne. At that time, he showed, contrary to the doctrine proposed by two Nobel prize winners, that individual neurons could release more than one neurotransmitter. However, challenging established ideas from prominent laureates was not easy, and the "purinergic" hypothesis faced considerable resistance. At moments, the hypothesis was discredited and derided - Burnstock was the inventor of the 'pure-imagine' hypothesis!
He passed away last year at the age of 91, but his accomplishments will be remembered as the basis of a new field laid on a rock-solid scientific foundation. He supervised many students and published over a thousand papers and books. He was one of the most-cited scientists in pharmacology and toxicology. His persistency ended up impacting the discovery of new treatments. In my opinion, his single major contribution was to expand the human knowledge of the human brain and to show that science is dynamic by replacing old ideas that do not explain our observation with creative new ones – neurons do not speak only one language with each other, they are polyglots!
[Dr. Urresti] That’s an easy one for me! Without a doubt I’d choose Santiago Ramon y Cajal. Being Spanish myself, obviously I have a connection with the most famous Spanish scientist in history, and he being the Father of Neuroscience makes it even more fascinating to me. I’m in awe when I think about the discoveries and questions he was asking when the methods and techniques available at the time were so rudimentary. He also had a pretty interesting life, being a war medic in his younger years, and had quite unorthodox views as a scientist, being religious and believing in paranormal events. So I believe I would have a lot of things to ask about!
Exciting times ahead for us at Vyant Bio! We can't wait to see the breakthroughs achieved!