What makes stem cells develop into kidneys? Lori O’Brien, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate in the laboratory of Andy McMahon, PhD, FRS, has received the first Broad Fellowship to help answer this question.

O’Brien is the first of a series of Broad Fellows, exceptional senior postdoctoral researchers at the transition point to starting their own stem cell laboratories. The fellowship was established as part of a $2 million gift from The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation to the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. The gift also supports core research facilities and innovative projects.

“One component of this money is to provide senior postdoctoral fellows with a year’s worth of funding and their own lab support,” said McMahon, director of USC’s stem cell research center. “This enables our most promising young scientists to become the next generation of innovators in regenerative medicine.”

The unanimous choice of the external review committee, O’Brien’s project explores how key genes are “turned on” or “turned off” through a process called epigenetic regulation. Turning off specific genes in kidney stem cells prompts them to self-renew, or divide and give rise to more stem cells. These stem cells self-renew until they receive the signals to undergo specialization or differentiation into nephron cells, which form the functional unit of the kidneys.

O’Brien is focusing on an epigenetic regulator called Phf19, which encourages embryonic stem cells to self-renew, and may have a similar effect on kidney stem cells.

O’Brien has always possessed a curious, scientific mind. Born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, she witnessed her first “dissection” when her dad, who liked to fish, would clean and filet his catch in the yard. She was fascinated by fish anatomy and all aspects of the natural world.

She parlayed her inquisitive mind into earning a bachelor’s degree in bacteriology and a PhD in biochemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As a postdoctoral researcher, she has studied kidney development at Massachusetts General Hospital, Harvard University and USC.

“I’m honored to have been chosen, and thank The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation for their generous contribution to establish the award,” said O’Brien. “This fellowship will help establish my career as an independent scientist dedicated to understanding kidney stem cells, so that we can utilize this knowledge to develop regenerative therapies for patients.”

— By Cristy Lytal