For scientists organizing their first research laboratories, it can be difficult to secure much-needed seed funding.
That's why Karen Christman, Ph. D., breathed a huge sigh of relief when she learned ample funding for her year-old bioengineering lab at UCSD will be flowing in for the next five years.
Christman, 30, was one of two UCSD researchers to receive a $1.5 million New Innovator Award from the National Institute of Health last month.
The grants were given to a small number of new investigators proposing bold and highly innovative research approaches with the potential to produce a major breakthrough in biomedical or behavioral research.
This aptly describes Christman's heart tissue regeneration research, which looks beyond cells to the material surrounding them, called the extracellular matrix.
The matrix is known to play a key role in cells' development and behavior, but has not been extensively studied in relation to stem cell differentiation.
Christman is working to create matrices in the lab that will provide step-by-step cues for directing cell behavior, including what makes stem cells become a heart muscle cell or skeletal muscle cell.
If successful, Christman and her team could help control stem cells, paving the way for all sorts of regenerative medicine therapies.
"It's a big challenge to try to attempt," Christman said. "I think a lot of people are making progress, especially now that they are starting to pay attention to the matrix."
It may take many years to solve this puzzle, but Christman is also developing other regenerative treatments to help heart tissue heal after a heart attack, and even prevent heart failure. These non-cell-based treatments may come much sooner.
"My goal is to develop a therapy," she said. "If we can develop something in the lab that actually goes into a human, actually helps prevent heart failure … I think that would be one of the best things."
Christman planned to study medicine until she stumbled upon bioengineering while at Northwestern University.
"Bioengineering combined everything I was interested in - it was the perfect fit," she said.
She went on to receive her masters and Ph.D. from UC San Francisco and Berkeley, and completed her post-doctoral work at UCLA.