Mitra Lavasani, PhD, was a young scientist with big dreams. As with many of her peers, however, she had yet to translate her early research success into significant federal funding.
In a previous study, Dr. Lavasani used stem cells to double the lifespan of aged mice, delaying the onset of several common diseases. However, to obtain meaningful external funding for fueling continued studies, she couldn’t just present this observation; she had to come up with a plausible basis for the finding.
Everything changed when Dr. Lavasani secured $50,000 through the internal Catalyst Grant program. She finally got her chance. The funding paid for sophisticated proteomic analysis, a method used to identify the exact type of proteins made by her stem cells. Through this process, she pinpointed candidate proteins that might be responsible for the anti-aging effect being spurred in mice. She now had her testable hypothesis and the basis for a solid grant proposal.
Then, instead of simply injecting stem cells into tissues of need, such as joint cartilage or muscle — which is considered the traditional approach — Dr. Lavasani’s team injected the cells in a manner that allowed them to circulate systemically in aged mice. The result: inflammation decreased, regenerative cells flourished and cartilage regrew — lending hope that osteoarthritis can be reversed. Following this discovery, made possible in part by the funding from private donors, Dr. Lavasani subsequently has secured sizable foundation and government grants totaling more than $4 million.
“My story is a perfect example of how early funding not only spurs discoveries, but also leads to more funding,” she said. “Without the seed money I received, it would have been almost impossible to secure the significant multi-year grants I’ve received since. The early funding provided the jump start to accelerate my research.”
Dr. Lavasani hopes one day to translate her research by testing it in humans — the ultimate goal to optimize and individualize treatments. She’s convinced Shirley Ryan AbilityLab’s translational hospital, where she has direct access to willing patients and research participants, is the perfect setting.
“Shirley Ryan AbilityLab is a goldmine for stem cell biologists like me,” she said. “We have ready access to state-of-the-art tools and technology through our Biologics Lab — the only one located in a rehabilitation hospital. Additionally, we are surrounded by patients, and have access to samples and data on a scale not possible elsewhere. Importantly, we are more connected to those who will benefit from our research. There is no greater inspiration.”