Buck Institute Adds Two New Faculty

Stem cell technologies will be utilized to study vision disorders and skeletal muscle physiology

The research environment at the Buck Institute has become richer and the collaborative energy is on an upswing with the addition of new faculty members Deepak Lamba, PhD and Arvind Ramanthan, PhD. The two assistant professors will be utilizing various stem cell technologies to pursue their research goals. Dr. Lamba will be identifying new methods to treat degenerative vision disorders. Dr. Ramanathan will be studying the physiology of skeletal muscle to understand how it regenerates and responds to aging.

Deepak Lamba, PhDDr. Lamba, who was most recently at the University of Washington in Seattle, is a pioneer among those developing efficient methods of making retinal cells from human embryonic stem cells.  He has generated differentiated photoreceptors, the cells in the eye that respond to light, and has shown that the cells can be successfully transplanted into rodents.  In vision tests of these otherwise-blind mice, the stem-cell-transplanted eyes respond to light.  “Now I need to determine if there will be any issues with tumor development in the new cells,” said Dr. Lamba, “I also need to ascertain how long the transplanted cells survive.” His research will be of particular interest to those with age-related macular degeneration, which destroys central vision. He says photoreceptors are the key cells needed to treat the disease, the leading cause of vision loss in Americans 60 and older. An estimated 11 million people in the U.S. have some form of macular degeneration.

Dr. Lamba will also utilize induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). An iPS cell is a cell taken from any tissue that has been genetically modified to behave like an embryonic stem cell. As the name implies, these cells have the ability to form all adult cell types. Dr. Lamba will be using iPS technology to generate eye cells from skin cells in order to understand and develop treatments for glaucoma and other retinal degenerations.  Eye diseases in the glaucoma group often share traits such as high eye pressure, damage to the optic nerve, and gradual sight loss. “Glaucoma is a complicated disorder since it affects the ganglion cells which project from the eye to the brain,” said Dr. Lamba. “Transplantation would be much more difficult so I’ll be using iPS technology to create cells that can be used to screen existing drugs in order to identify those that might be useful as a treatment.”

Dr. Lamba was a physician in India. He trained in ophthalmology and practiced emergency medicine before becoming a researcher.  “I wasn’t satisfied helping one person at a time in the clinic,” he said. “I wanted to be able to help larger groups of people.”

Arvind Ramanathan, PhDWhile Dr. Lamba focuses on eyes, Dr. Ramanathan uses skeletal muscle tissue as a scientific “palette” to further his research into molecular physiology – the complex signaling that determines how an organism or its parts function. Using adult stem cells from muscle (adult stem cells are specialized cells that have the ability to regenerate their tissue of origin) and sophisticated mass spectrometric- and imaging-based approaches he will address these questions: What are the molecular signals that integrate nutrients and impact tissue regeneration? By what mechanisms does aging affect these molecular signals? How do cancer-causing mutations remodel cellular metabolism?  Dr. Ramanathan’s work is expected to inform the study of sarcopenia – the degenerative loss of skeletal muscle -- that is a hallmark of aging. Most people lose 0.5-to-1% in muscle mass and strength each year after age 25. “The objective is to comprehensively identify biological pathways and growth factor signals that could be exploited to reverse or slow this degenerative process,” said Dr. Ramanathan.

Dr. Ramanathan, who came to the Buck from the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, is also embarking on an inquiry that highlights the creative nature of science.  Since arriving at the Buck in April he’s become interested in xenobiotic stressors – the environmental toxins, including chemicals from plastics, pesticides, and car fumes – asking how they affect physiology.  The environment affects stem cells, according to Dr. Ramanathan. “It’s an impact that doesn’t go away, and it gets inherited genetically and epigenetically. How does that affect aging? Is there a way we can reverse the damage?”

Dr. Ramanathan will be working closely with Buck Professor Brad Gibson, PhD, who heads the Institute’s Chemistry and Mass Spectrometry core. Dr. Ramanathan’s laboratory will build a technology platform that will be used to map the metabolic regulation in stem cells by measuring the “metabolic flux” of naturally occurring molecules.  He hopes the platform will provide a springboard for Buck scientists studying other tissues and their adult stem cells.   

“I am excited to welcome both of these new faculty members to the Buck,” said President and CEO Brian Kennedy, PhD. “They are well established in their respective fields and the fact that they are both utilizing stem cells fits perfectly into the Institute’s growth plan.” Dr. Kennedy said their work has great potential to improve healthspan. “Vision problems often spark a downward spiral in the health of older people and function is almost entirely dependent on muscle strength. Their programs enrich our scope of aging research greatly.”

“The Buck is an exhilarating place to be,” said Dr. Ramanathan. “There are no layers of bureaucracy; it’s an environment that supports creativity.”  He added, “When I interviewed at other organizations, I got a sense that failure was an option. That’s not the case here. People are invested in my science. They want me to succeed.”

Dr. Lamba, who started at the Buck on October 1, agrees. The Buck “was different than any other place I was considering,” he said. “I felt it the moment I arrived to interview. People have been amazingly supportive and good to talk to.”  In addition to his own research, Dr. Lamba plans to be involved in the Buck’s larger focus on delaying the aging process itself.  Dr. Lamba also studies retinitis pigmentosa, a group of hereditary eye diseases that lead to blindness.  “In many people the symptoms of the disease don’t show up until age 50 or 60.  Delaying the aging process would make a huge difference for these patients.”

Interestingly, both men say their fathers had a huge impact on their career choices. Dr. Lamba’s father suffers from glaucoma and other vision problems – it’s what prompted him to study ophthalmology. Dr. Ramanathan always wanted to be a scientist. His dad was an organic chemist, and he remembers enjoying the smells his father brought home from work.

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