USC Stem Cell scientist Zhongwei Li, PhD, could have gone into the family restaurant business. Instead, he’s dedicated his career to experimenting with a very different set of ingredients: kidney stem cells.

“The kidney is a very important organ, and it is also a very fragile organ,” said Li, assistant professor of medicine and stem cell biology and regenerative medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “More than 10 percent of people develop chronic kidney diseases and 80 percent of people who need organ transplantations actually need kidneys.”

The first scientist in his family, Li grew up in Chongqing, China, the birthplace of hot pot. His father was a famous Szechuan-style chef, while his mother helped run the family restaurant.

But Li’s tastes always ran to biology.

“At a very young age, I was fascinated by the question of how a fertilized egg can become a live animal with so many different kinds of cell types,” he said.

Inspired by such questions, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in biotechnology from Sichuan University. As a PhD candidate at Tsinghua University, he studied the signals that guide stem cell behavior in the laboratory of Ye-Guang Chen, PhD.

He then undertook his postdoctoral training at the Salk Institute in the laboratory of Juan Carlos Izpisua Belmonte. As a postdoc, Li concocted a cocktail of molecules that encourages the growth of kidney stem cells in the laboratory, opening new avenues for the study of kidney development, disease and regeneration.

As a new assistant professor at the Keck School, Li will use stem cell and bioengineering technologies to build mini-kidneys, called organoids, in the laboratory. The near-term goal is to use these organoids to test potential drugs to treat kidney disease. The long-term goal is to further develop the organoids into functional kidneys for transplantation into patients.

“Kidney transplants are very limited and many patients die while they’re still waiting for organs,” Li said. “So there’s an urgent need for us to find alternative ways to replace the kidneys.”

Li emphasizes that building a kidney will require the collective efforts of many scientists from different research fields and he believes that USC provides the ideal environment for reaching across disciplines. As a new faculty member, he looks forward to collaborating with colleagues from the Keck School and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.

“USC is a perfect place to study the kidney,” he said. “I’m very excited to have the opportunity to interact with the kidney research community here at USC and I’m sure that we can work together to move forward with kidney research.”

— Cristy Lytal