The Donald E. and Delia B. Baxter Foundation is supporting innovative biomedical research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC by granting $100,000 awards to two assistant professors: Vishal Patel, MD, PhD, in the USC Mark and Mary Stevens Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, and Ya-Wen Chen, PhD, in the USC Hastings Center for Pulmonary Research and the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. In addition, the foundation has given $100,000 in support of the Medical Student Summer Research Fellowship program at the Keck School.

Patel will use his award to study regions of abnormal brain tissue that cause seizures in epilepsy patients using an ultra-high resolution MRI. This unique instrument will allow Patel to generate specifically tailored images of patients’ brains to pinpoint irregularities.

“We hope that this approach will allow us to identify abnormal brain tissue in more individuals compared to standard MRI,” Patel said, “and thus offer the potential for a surgical cure to more of our patients who suffer from drug-resistant epilepsy.”

Chen will use her $100,000 Baxter award to determine how stem cells repair lung injuries in human patients.

To study this process, Chen and her team will collect adult skin or blood cells, reprogram them into induced pluripotent stem cells and direct them to generate a specific type of lung stem cell. The scientists will then direct these lung stem cells to develop into simplified lung structures known as organoids.

“We’re using lung organoids to take a close look at two key molecular signals — called hypoxic and Wnt — that determine whether lungs repair themselves well or badly,” said Chen, who is an assistant professor of medicine plus stem cell biology and regenerative medicine. “This could offer important clues about how we can avoid bad repair, such as fibrosis, in patients with serious lung injuries due to acute respiratory distress syndrome.”

Since 1959, the Baxter Foundation has supported USC’s early-career investigators and medical students as they perform research to develop new treatments for patients. USC is one of several California educational and scientific institutions that have benefitted from the foundation’s longstanding commitment to advancing research and medical innovations.

“We are so pleased to be able to continue our support of USC with these new awards to Drs. Chen and Patel, and with the research fellowships for medical students,” said Jane Haake Russell, president of the Baxter Foundation. “By supporting these gifted researchers at the beginning of their careers, we are able to fulfill the foundation’s important mission of advancing medical research to develop new approaches for alleviating pain and prolonging human life.”

— Zara Greenbaum and Cristy Lytal