15 Good Minutes: Hee Cheol Cho

Issues surrounding cardiovascular health and disease are personal for Dr. Hee Cheol Cho. Dr. Cho lost his father to a heart attack, and his father lost his siblings to heart attacks. “The topic of cardiovascular disease is embedded in my family and blood,” Dr. Cho said.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D. is a stem cell and cardiology researcher, Urowsky-Sahr Scholar in Pediatric Bioengineering, and Associate Professor at the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Pediatrics at Emory and Georgia Tech. Dr. Cho’s research focuses on cardiac pacemaker cells and developing a gene-and cell-based treatment for cardiac arrhythmia. His “biological pacemaker” is a minimally invasive alternative treatment for cardiac arrhythmia.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Hee Cheol Cho, Ph.D.

Cardiac arrhythmia refers to irregular heartbeats that can cause fatigue and, in more severe cases, unconsciousness. To correct the heartbeats, an electrical pacemaker is often implanted. This implanting of electric pacemakers is not considered suitable for pediatric patients, and it is an invasive procedure. There are also several drawbacks of the device, including battery replacement, dislodging of the lead wire, and risk of infection. Dr. Cho and his research team have developed a device-free pacemaker, using a small molecule to convert heart muscle cells to pacemaker cells to restore natural heart rhythm.

Dr. Cho’s research also addresses myocardial infarction. Myocardial infarction, commonly known as a heart attack, is an abrupt blockage of the heart vessel that supplies the blood to the heart.  When the circulation is cut off, then the heart vessel will begin to die within hours. The heart cannot regenerate itself, and once the muscle begins to die it will be replaced with fibrotic tissue that leaves a big scar.

In the lab, Dr. Cho and his team pursue knowledge and understanding of how stem cells arrive at heart muscle cells and what kind of growth factors we can add or subtract so that we get the heart muscle cells that we want to replace the damaged muscles.

“We are at the point where we can reasonably specify which road the stem cells will take to become either atrial or ventricular heart muscle cells. In our latest discovery, we found a way to make these stem cells become left or right ventricular cells and that’s important because when the myocardial infraction happens and the damage is in the left ventricle, then we want to implant in the left ventricle. We have arrived at a point where we can specify this.”

Beyond his personal connection, Dr. Cho has many other inspirations and influences for entering this line of work. “My parents and my family have been the initial influencer of my career, but the proverb ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ applies to me as well,” Dr. Cho said.  “In the early years of my training, my Ph.D. supervisor and post-doctoral mentor all have given me such excellent training and mentorship to form me as a scientist. Now that we have this research team, my young and talented, and seasoned scientists all influence me. Their dedication, work, and their exciting discoveries are all humbling to me and give me such great satisfaction as they grow. These past few years I have also developed relationships with patients and their families. When I speak and communicate with young people with cardiac pacemakers and want to play sports again and see how our research gives them hope, it is a motivation to me and my career.

As Dr. Cho described his work, he had a few words of advice for aspiring scientists and his past self: “If I could rewind 20 years from today, then I think I would tell myself to ‘be the best version of yourself.'”

15 Good Minutes: Hari Trivedi

After completing an undergraduate degree in engineering at Georgia Tech, Emory Assistant-Professor Dr. Hari Trivedi began medical school with an open mind about what field to specialize in. While exploring different fields, Trivedi began to grow interested in the intersection of medicine and technology. He eventually settled on his chosen field, radiology, after witnessing how it combined his interests in both medicine and engineering.

“During radiology rotations, I thought radiology was just so cool because radiologists get all the newest toys,” Trivedi said. “I remember seeing my first 3D reconstruction of a CT scan, and that’s when I was like, OK, this is really interesting and powerful stuff.”

Today, Dr. Trivedi is both a practicing radiologist as well as a researcher in the field. He has worked on innovative improvements to medical diagnostic procedures such as breast cancer screening. Much of Trivedi’s research involves using Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms to deliver faster and more reliable diagnoses from medical imaging. Trivedi’s work involves balancing the development time and accuracy of this technology to ensure it can be deployed within a reasonable time frame while providing accurate diagnoses. Getting innovations deployed so they can improve patient outcomes is something that Trivedi always tries to stay focused on.

“Deployment is something that’s often overlooked, as 99% of AI machine learning technology gets stuck in the lab, Trivedi said. “So, while getting it deployed and integrated to a healthcare system is extremely complicated, unless you take that step, you really haven’t necessarily created anything of value.”

Trivedi views being a practicing clinician as an advantage for his research, as it provides him with a firsthand look at clinical issues that could be addressed by new innovations. This dual role can also be a challenge however, with the added complexity juggling different responsibilities brings. Trivedi views a key component of successful research as keeping in mind the expertise of each individual involved with a given project.

“There’s a lot of people that need to come together for a project succeed, which can sometimes take time, but that persistence is the key,” Trivedi said. “As long you’re persistent and stay on the radar, I think people are generally very good about making sure things get done.”

Trivedi has also had success commercializing some of his innovations, a process he views as a “natural extension of utility.” Under this principle, Trivedi always tries to provide innovations for free to other researchers who can find use for it. In some cases, however, Trivedi has filed for protection of intellectual property and licensed it out to commercial entities if this is the only way to financially sustain the innovation. One example is Trivedi’s work on algorithms for the anonymization of medical data. The tool requires ongoing maintenance and support, which necessitates charging a fee for use. Any other proceeds from commercialization go to supporting the needs of the lab and future research.

“That’s the way we look at commercialization, as if we build something useful, we do everything we can to give it away for free, Trivedi said. “But if it’s not going to be sustainable by giving it away for free, then we would try to license it to the appropriate person and use those funds to support the project.”

For those also seeking to become researchers, Trivedi’s key piece of advice is filtering out the noise to focus on individual goals and pursuits. This means worrying less about what others are doing and striving more to maintain focus on one’s own projects. As Trivedi believes, there’s never going to be a lack of discoveries to be made, and every researcher can make their own unique contributions to the scientific community.

“No problem is every really solved, there’s always room to innovate,” Trivedi said. “Things that we do literally hundreds of thousands of times per year, they’re still not perfect. So, I’d recommend not staying fixated on what others are doing, and I’d rather focusing on actually fixing and solving a problem at hand.”

Hari Trivedi: https://med.emory.edu/directory/profile/?u=HMTRIVE

15 Good Minutes: Ichiro Matsumura

For Emory Professor of Biochemistry Ichiro Matsumura, PhD, inspiration to pursue a career in research came from an unlikely source: a concussion. When Matsumura was in college at MIT, he got into a bike accident that left him hospitalized for several months. After being released from the hospital, Matsumura was prepared to retake all his courses from that semester over the summer. However, one of Matsumura’s professors, Harry Lodish, gave him the option to write a report from a list of topics instead of retaking the course, given that he had done well on the class’s first midterm. The topic Matsumura chose was evolution, which he would later dedicate his career to studying.

“That [summer] was what got me excited about evolution,” Matsumura said. “Eventually when I went to grad school a couple years later, I already knew I already who the leaders of the field were, and so I just applied to those specific departments.”

Matsumura credits that summer project with helping him identify key research questions. Given the field of molecular evolution was young at the time, Matsumura was able to read every issue of Molecular Biology and Evolution and learn the names of all the contributors in the field. Later as a grad student, Matsumura learned how to formulate hypotheses and design informative experiments. He would use these skills to apply for a competitive NSF postdoc fellowship, and to develop an independent research program within the lab of his advisor, Andy Ellington.

Today, Matsumura leads a lab at Emory that studies evolution on a molecular level. His work has yielded discoveries of proteins with pharmaceutical and industrial uses, as well as illuminated the evolutionary process within cells and microorganisms. Recently, Matsumura has explored what factors account for variation in how bacteria grows. When examining bacterial cultures with the same initial genotype, Matsumura found that the cultures develop variations, even if grown in similar environments. Eventually, he began to realize that these variations could not simply be accounted for by different copy numbers or multicopy plasmids. Instead, he was witnessing evolution taking place on a molecular level.

“If you think about how much a bacterium can replicate itself over say 30 Generations, it’s a lot of opportunity for mutation,” Matsumura said. And so especially with multicopy plasmids, you have so many copies per cell, so many generations, and so many cells per milliliter, it just sort of becomes inevitable that some of them start getting mutated.”

Matsumura’s work has implications for a wide range of topics, including novel gene therapy technologies. Gene therapy relies on the interstation of a “stressor DNA” into a cell as the impetus for genetic change that improves the health of the cell. Based on Matsumura’s findings regarding molecular evolution however, such changes on a genetic level can lead to unintended mutations. Matsumura is working on techniques that could prevent damaging consequences as a result of this process, by forcing the cell to express specific proteins. While he is currently exploring the technique using bacteria, it could potentially be used on human cells as well.

Balancing the need to protect intellectual property while publishing work has sometimes proved challenging for Matsumura, as he believes it can be for many scientists. While publishing work in a timely manner is essential for obtaining research grants, doing so can be considered a “public disclosure,” starting the clock on a limited amount of time to obtain a patent. To help augment his knowledge of the patent process, Matsumura took a class on intellectual property at Emory Law School, offered as part of a program where Emory faculty can take courses for free. There he worked with his professor to discuss which projects he was currently working on could be suitable for patenting.

“It, to some extent, falls upon the shoulders of us investigators to make a case and to prove that [an innovation] could of be value and therefore worth patenting,” Matsumura said. “And that’s not always an easy case to make.”

Given his long and successful career, Matsumura has two key pieces of advice for those seeking to follow his path. The first essential piece is worrying more about establishing strong working relationships than raw talent. Matsumura believes that he overestimated the role of measures such as test scores in predicting future success.

“You need a certain threshold of talent to get into grad school and to get that first job, but once you’re along a certain way, it really ends up becoming more a matter of personality that determines who succeeds and who doesn’t,” Matsumura said. “I did spend a fair amount of time when I was younger, thinking about what I’m good at and how good I am at those things, and I think I may have spent a little bit too much time thinking about that.”

The second key piece of advice that Matsumura would give is not being afraid of failure and learning from mistakes. He emphasizes willingness to learn the “right lessons,” as opposed to just the easy lessons from mistakes, as an important part of this process. Ultimately, learning from mistakes has been defining for Matsumura’s career path, even as he recognizes that he was privileged to receive the benefit of the doubt and the ability to learn from these mistakes.

“It’s really hard I think to go through life and to get everything right the first time, and so for me learning how to solve problems and make good decisions all requires doing things wrong, figuring out that I did them wrong, and trying to do better the next time,” Matsumura said. “Since I had to figure it out learning the hard way, at the very least, I think that I taught my younger self that that’s okay.”

Ichiro Matsumura: https://med.emory.edu/departments/biochemistry/research-labs/mastumura/index.html

15 Good Minutes: William Wuest

Antibiotics have been one of the most consequential innovations in human history, allowing us to treat a wide variety of bacterial diseases that could otherwise be damaging or fatal. However, bacterial resistant to these antibiotics is on the rise, necessitating a constant drive to discover new antibiotic drugs as older ones are rendered less effective. One of the scientists on this forefront of this push is Emory Associate Professor and Georgia Research Alliance Distinguished Investigator, William Wuest, PhD. Wuest runs a lab that is focused on finding novel antibiotics to fight bacterial infections. Recently he and his team have made several notable discoveries, including drugs that can be used against antibiotic-resistant staph (MSRA), as well as bacteria that can cause tooth decay and heart disease.

Wuest originally obtained a degree in chemistry/business from the University of Notre Dame. Between his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and postdoctoral position at Harvard Medical School, he grew interested in antibacterial development. A major incentive for him to study this subject was the relative lack of interest by pharmaceutical companies in a field that had a growing need.

“The fact that humans have created compounds de novo, that are effective against specific diseases, and have saved countless lives is truly remarkable,” Wuest said. “However, companies’ recent lack of interest in antibiotics has left a convenient void for academics to fill.”

As Wuest’s career advanced, antibiotic-resistant bacteria became a growing problem. Today, these strains of bacteria infect over 2 million people worldwide each year and are responsible for 23,000 annual deaths. A 2014 study by KPMG estimated that 2050, antibiotic-resistant bacteria could cause more deaths than cancer. To combat this problem, Wuest and his team are always looking for new compounds with the potential to become antibiotic drugs. They start by looking at structures in nature that are known to kill bacteria. They then attempt to “strip down” the molecule in the lab to create a simplified form where it can be used in therapies, a process which Wuest says can be challenging.

“Although organic synthesis is a mature field, and we can create virtually any molecule we want, it is still a time consuming and frustrating practice,” Wuest said. “I’m fortunate to lead an incredibly talented group of graduate students, undergraduates, and postdocs at Emory who work very hard day-in and day-out toward these goals.”

Wuest’s work is uncertain by nature, as the outcomes of the trials his lab runs on new drugs are unpredictable. One time, for example, Wuest discovered a compound that appeared to be highly potent at killing Staph bacteria. It was later found, with further testing however, that the compound also damaged human cells, making it impossible to use as a therapy. To Wuest, however, such experiences are just part of his job and make it even more rewarding when he does find a successful antibiotic.

“To me, the most exciting part of every project is to see if our hypotheses are accurate,” Wuest said. “I am the type of person who always loves to be right, but in this field that outcome is typically rare.”

For those seeking a career in his field, Wuest emphasizes intellectual curiosity, particularly through reading scientific literature, as an essential quality to have. He also advises students and young scientists to network, saying such connections have broadened the scope of his own research.

“Our research has been expanding in ways I never would have thought possible through one-off meetings during seminar visits or a dinner after conferences,” Wuest said. “These collaborations have expanded our potential, leveraged our resources, and enabled my students to have broad training experiences.”

William Wuest: http://biomed.emory.edu/academics/faculty-detail.html?action=getFacultyDetail&gdbbsId=07FD72BF-FE9C-4F05-AC97-AB470D7DF98F

15 Good Minutes: Cassandra Quave

When most people think about medicine, plants are not what immediately jumps to mind. However, for Emory Assistant Professor Cassandra Quave, PhD, the relationship between plants and medicine is career-defining. Quave is an ethnobotanist, meaning she studies human interaction with plants and their potential medical properties. Her work has led to important discoveries including treatments for eczema and skin infections. Quave describes her research as investigating compounds on a fundamental level, derived from their source in plants. She and her lab then determine whether the compound has properties that would allow it to be used in medicine.

“In a single plant species, you have hundreds or thousands of unique molecules, and so there’s a lot of chemical diversity found in nature to still explore,” Quave said. “There are over 28,000 species of plants used by humans on earth for medicinal purposes, and we’ve barely scratched the surface in exploring their medical potential.”

Quave decided to pursue her career studying plants based on her interests in microbiology and nature. Today, in addition to her role as an Emory Professor, she also serves as a curator of the Emory Herbarium and as CEO of the start-up company PhytoTEK LLC. In her role at PhyoTek, which she co-founded, Quave helped the company discover innovative plant-based medications for fighting antibiotic-resistant drugs. Currently, PhytoTEK is working on the technology for a new line of medicated bandages.

Protecting the intellectual property of her innovations can be more complicated for Quave than it is for many other researchers. This is because plants themselves can only be patented in a narrow set of circumstances, while the medical use of compounds isolated or formulated from the plant can be patented more broadly. Quave’s company PhyoTEK holds one patent, and Quave has worked with Emory’s Office of Technology Transfer (OTT) to secure additional patents for innovations discovered through her academic research. Quave says working with OTT has generally been a smooth and quick process.

“I’ve been really impressed by Emory’s OTT because they’re pretty fast in getting provisional patents filed and then converting them when the year is up,” Quave said.

For those also hoping to pursue a career in ethnobotany or biology in general, Quave recommends that they polish their writing skills. She spends much of the time writing, from grant proposals to academic papers and a science memoir.

“Start writing earlier and practice writing,” Quave said. “Write a lot more grants because grants are what make the research possible. So just building skills in the field of scientific writing and communicating science from an early stage is really important.”