Since the first reported results from Yamanaka et al. in 2006, pluripotent stem cell culture has become an advantageous approach for modeling human disorders and diseases. The directed differentiation of stem cells into particular cell types can also be the basis for powerful in vitro models of early developmental defects in humans. Our lab is interested in neural tube closure as well as neural crest cell development, and to investigate our questions we use the mouse as our model system. However, we also aim to translate our findings to human development. Thus, my mentor, Dr. Lee Niswander at the University of Colorado Denver School of Medicine, and I decided to implement an in vitro model using human stem cells and test our findings from mouse in human neural crest development.
My thesis project in the Niswander Lab aims to investigate the epigenetic regulation of neural crest cell development, a migratory cell population that can differentiate into disparate cell types. My interests in both neural crest development and the epigenetic mechanisms that regulate transcription, is what sparked the idea of a collaborative visit with Dr. Ruchi Bajpai and her lab at the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, California. Dr. Bajpai’s research interests are very similar to my own, and we identified her as a great potential collaborator as she has pioneered the directed differentiation of stem cells into neural crest, the use of fluorescently tagged enhancers in stem cells, and also defined the epigenetic signatures of neural crest enhancers. Therefore, we sought to establish a collaboration with her lab so that I could learn the directed differentiation of iPSCs into neural crest fates and subsequently test our own hypotheses of the epigenetic regulation of human neural crest development.
With the gracious assistance from the Company of Biologists, the Traveling Fellowship that I was awarded enabled me to travel from Denver, Colorado to Dr. Bajpai’s lab in the City of Angels, also known as Los Angeles. This was a tremendously rewarding experience for me. It was wonderful being able visit a new university and with the help of Dr. Bajpai and her lab, I was not only able to learn how to successfully culture and differentiate iPSCs into neural crest, but I was also able to use this method to begin testing our own hypotheses. One important step was learning how to perform chromatin immunoprecipitation (ChIP) with our differentiated neural crest cells. I also learned the technique of lentiviral infection of stem cells, which we used in combination with fluorescently tagged enhancer sequences. Back in Denver I will continue with these methods of lentiviral based modification and the directed differentiation of iPSCs into neural crest during my thesis work investigating the epigenetic regulation of neural crest development. In the future, we hope to compare datasets that we will obtain from our own ChIP-seq experiments with those generated by Dr. Bajpai with other epigenetic regulators.
Overall the experience was fantastic. It highlights the importance of collaborative science and the impacts of a strong scientific community. I have not only improved myself as a scientist, but I have also expanded my scientific network, which will benefit me for the rest of my career. I would like to thank the Company of Biologists, and also Dr. Bajpai and her lab, for the opportunity and support.