Biomedical engineering professor wins trailblazer award for stem cell research

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Professor Janet Zoldan, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering, studies how stem cells can evolve into specialized cells. Professor Zoldan was recently selected as the recipient of an NIH trailblazer award for her work.

Photo Credit: Evan L'Roy | Daily Texan Staff

The National Institutes of Health granted biomedical engineering assistant professor Janet Zoldan $627,000 to fund her stem cell research for three years.

Zoldan said the grant, which she received in September, is only given to one or two people each year, and she is the first researcher at the University to win it. The award will fund research on how biomaterials, which are natural or synthetic materials that can be engineered to arrange tissue-like structures, “can control the process of stem cells differentiating into cardiovascular cells,” Zoldan said. 

“It’s specifically geared to fund investigators at (an) early stage,” Zoldan said. “The idea is to identify investigators that have the ability or the potential to start new fields in the biomedical engineering arena.” 

In the body, stem cells can transform into many different types of cells through differentiation, Zoldan said. When they are given the correct cues, they assemble naturally into various types of cells, she said. 

Zoldan said these cells are unique because they are patient-specific. The researchers can take a blood or skin sample from a patient and modify it to age in reverse and become stem cells, she said.

By studying patient-specific cells, they can research diseases and develop patient-specific medicines, Zoldan said. This will improve patient outcomes because cells specific to patients will not have a negative immune response within the body, she said. 

“So the biggest time gap would be generating the … stem cells from a patient,” Zoldan said. “That takes about three months. However, if we could have banks of (stem cells), that really will save … three months of generating these cells. And then once we have that (bank of stem cells) … (it) really takes about a month to generate these vascular tissues, and then we can basically put them back into the patient.” 

The lab is studying these cells in a model system, Zoldan said, to learn how to mimic cues by using near-infrared light.

“Stem cell research is really fascinating because it is kind of the bleeding edge of science,” said Cody Crosby, biomedical engineering graduate student. “There’s a lot of really revolutionary technologies that are being developed from stem cell technology.” 

Biomedical engineering senior Remy Fenrich said he sees the value in this research and how it translates into other scientific fields.

“This research is collaborative,” Fenrich said. “Cumulative growth knowledge is extremely important, and that’s kind of how things move forward.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated since it was originally published to correct a typo in a quote.