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ONU students get a sneak peak at Dr. Carla Kim’s breakthrough stem cell research.


When Ohio Northern University biological and allied health students attended a lecture by Dr. Carla (Bender) Kim, BS ’97, last week in HP151, they knew they were going to learn about how stem cell biology can be helpful in understanding lung disease and lung cancer. They didn’t know they would be getting a sneak peak at one of the more significant scientific breakthroughs of the year.

The January 30, 2014, issue of Cell.

In the scientific world, there are a handful of truly elite academic journals. Nature, Science, The Journal of the American Medical Association, certainly qualify, as does Cell, the leading peer-reviewed journal for the life sciences. Over the past 40 years, Cell has shared many of the scientific community's most important discoveries with the world. On Thursday, Jan. 30, Kim’s research, “Lung Stem Cell Differentiation in Mice Directed by Endothelial Cells via a BMP4-NFATc1-Thrombospondin-1 Axis,” was published in Cell.

“This really is a big deal,” says Dr. Rodney Anderson, chair of ONU’s Department of Biological and Allied Health Sciences. “I don’t know how much more successful you can be in the field of science than Carla has been.”

The essence of Kim’s research is in proving that lung stem cells can be coaxed into producing healthy cells in lungs damaged by diseases such as pulmonary fibrosis, emphysema and even cancer. Kim and her team from the Stem Cell Research Program at Boston Children’s Hospital used a protein produced in lung cells known as thrombospondin-1 (TSP-1) to generate new alveolar cells in a 3-D culture model designed to mimic the environment of the lung, and in live mice. While this discovery is astonishing in its own right, Kim believes it is just the beginning.

“We think that lung endothelial cells produce a lot of repair factors besides TSP-1,” she says. “We want to find all these molecules, which could provide additional therapeutic targets.”

Kim’s scientific curiosity was already well-developed when she arrived at ONU in 1993 as a presidential scholar. Although ONU didn’t offer a degree in molecular biology at the time, she sought out Anderson during her sophomore year to see if there was an opportunity in his lab to gain research experience.

“Carla was one of my research students who worked under a National Institutes of Health grant I’d received to investigate drugs that block replication of the AIDS virus. She’s been one of the best and brightest for a long time,” he says.

Members of the molecular biology lab circa 1995. From left: Nathan Zahler, Amber
(Long) Hogue, Leah Stands-Lanier, Hui-Fen Hsu and Carla (Bender) Kim.

After graduating from ONU in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Kim earned a doctorate in genetics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and then engaged in a postdoctoral fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Cancer Research. She is currently a principal investigator at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School Department of Genetics. Her research interests involve the relationships between stem cell biology, cancer biology and lung biology.

Kim spoke at ONU as part of the Department of Biological and Allied Health Sciences’ new Alumni Speaker Series. She was extremely busy during her visit, visiting three classes on Tuesday — a combined session of the molecular biology of cancer and genetics, medical microbiology, and molecular genetics, — delivering her lecture on Wednesday, and meeting with the ONU Board of Trustees, on which she sits, on Friday.

“I think it was encouraging to Dr. Kim, being a member of the Board of Trustees, to see firsthand that the education these students are receiving at Ohio Northern is just outstanding,” says Anderson.

About 100 biology majors attended Kim’s lecture. These students not only got an early glimpse of Kim’s yet-to-be-published research, but also saw how what they are learning in their classes applies to it. It also reaffirmed that they are indeed receiving a great education in terms of critical thinking and in being able to understand scientific concepts at the highest level.

“It was very reassuring, in terms of the education we receive at ONU, to see an alumnus in such a place as Harvard doing research on lung stem cells and cancer. It was even more reassuring to be able to understand what she was saying during the lecture,” says junior molecular biology major Alex Kneubehl.

Kneubehl was one of a small group of students invited to a lunch in Kim’s honor during her visit. There, he was able to connect one-on-one with Kim and ask her questions specific to the day-to-day operation of her lab and the research she is doing there. He even managed to get some career advice.

“I really appreciate that the department has started this lecture series,” he says. “It’s an amazing opportunity to meet researchers outside the University and get exposure to different areas of biology.”