Women to Watch: using patient-derived stem cells to study organ development and disease with Dr Samira Musah

Written by RegMedNet

As part of our ‘Women to Watch’ series on RegMedNet, we’re putting Dr Samira Musah – who is a stem cell biologist and bioengineer – into the spotlight. In 2019, Dr Musah opened her lab at Duke University (NC, USA) with a joint faculty position in the Biomedical Engineering and Medicine (Division of Nephrology) Departments. She is an Affiliated Faculty of the Duke Regeneration Next initiative, in addition to being a Duke MEDx (Medicine and Engineering Interface) Investigator.

Please could you tell us more about your role and research?

Research in my laboratory covers a range of interests, from fundamental studies of stem cell and tissue differentiation to engineered microphysiological systems for disease modeling, diagnostics and therapeutics. With more than 10% of the world’s population suffering from kidney disease, which lacks targeted therapies, my lab seeks to advance the understanding and treatment of kidney disease through three core research areas: (1) using patient-derived stem cells to study kidney development and disease mechanisms; (2) engineering functional kidney models for drug discovery, toxicity screening, diagnostics and as artificial organs in the future; and (3) direct reprogramming of cells to autonomously sense and trigger novel regenerative pathways for injury repair.

Before joining the faculty at Duke University, I completed my postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University and PhD from the University of Wisconsin–Madison (WI, USA). I am a grateful recipient of several awards that have all enabled me to pursue my passion in STEM and also contribute to the field. I was recently named among the inaugural “100 Inspiring Black Scientists in America” by Cell Press and a “Rising Star in Biomedical Engineering” at MIT (MA, USA).

What led you to pursue a career in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine?

I started my scientific career as a trainee in chemistry. I was always fascinated by how chemistry and molecules can control biological responses at the cellular, tissue and organism levels. With these interests, I explored the lab of Dr Laura Kiessling (now a professor at MIT) for a graduate research fellowship. Dr Kiessling was the first scientist I met whose research integrated synthetic organic chemistry and stem cell biology to develop bioactive materials to control cell fate decisions and understand tissue function. I loved the research projects in her lab and her infectious enthusiasm for science, so I decided to join her group for my PhD. My research experiences from her lab solidified my interest in stem cell biology and regenerative medicine.

Can you tell us more about your work on engineering stem cell fate for applications in human kidney disease?

More than 10% of the world’s population suffers from chronic kidney disease (CKD). Worldwide, there are more people with CKD (850 million) than the combined number of patients with diabetes (422 million), cancer (42 million), HIV/AIDS (36.7 million) and Parkinson’s disease (10 million). In the USA, more than 14% of the adult population suffers from CKD and end-stage kidney disease (ESKD) and costs more than $USD81 billion in annual Medicare expenditures (or almost double the entire NIH budget).

Compounding the overwhelming burden of CKD prevalence, there are no targeted therapies that are proven to reverse or even halt CKD progression to ESKD. Currently, the only available treatment options for ESKD are dialysis and kidney transplantation. Because survival on dialysis is limited (around 5–10 years) and access to kidney transplantation is insufficient, many patients die while waiting for a kidney transplant. Innovative, disruptive, high-risk approaches, such as those in my lab, are desperately needed to improve CKD outcomes in the USA and abroad. My laboratory’s core research areas (summarized above) aim to advance current molecular-level understanding and treatment of human kidney disease.

Have you ever in your career felt that you were at a disadvantage owing to your gender?

As a scientist, I consider what the data shows, so I am aware that some people are skeptical that women can be great scientists and leaders. Fortunately, in my training, mentorship and most impactful collaborative relationships, I have been unaware of inspiring individuals who firmly hold such views. Thus, I believe there are many great mentors and role models in this world who are genuinely making a positive impact in the lives of young scientists like myself, and I am grateful for that.

What advice would you give to young women hoping to pursue a career in your field?

Let your imaginations guide your path just as much as your experiences do. So be creative, enthusiastic, and get comfortable with taking some risks. It is also important to seek mentors who will support and constructively challenge you to excel.

Lastly, who is a female scientist who has inspired you?  

My undergraduate research advisor, Dr Omowunmi A Sadik, has played key roles in teaching and motivating me to pursue a science career. Many other female scientists, including my PhD advisor, Dr Laura Kiessling, have also inspired and encouraged me to pursue my science and engineering passion.

This interview was put together and conducted by our Senior Editor, Sharon Salt, with written responses provided to us by Dr Samira Musah.

The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of RegMedNet or Future Science Group. 

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