Biomolecular engineering professor awarded $1.9M grant to understand and engineer pluripotent stem cells

Ali Shariati with two of his lab members
Ali Shariati, assistant professor of biomolecular engineering, talking to lab members Silvart Arabian (pictured left) and Ben Topacio (pictured right). Photo by Mateo Etcheveste.

Ali Shariati, assistant professor of biomolecular engineering at the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering, has won the National Institute of Health's Maximizing Investigators' Research Award (MIRA/R35). This grant will fund his research determining the molecular mechanisms that link the two fundamental processes of cell division and differentiation to control cell fate in stem cells. By studying these processes, he will gain new insights into how to differentiate stem cells for regenerative medicine—methods to regrow, heal, or replace damaged or diseased parts of the body. 

Stem cells are unique in that they are able to differentiate into other cell types. A stem cell can choose between two opposing fates: divide to self-renew or differentiate into a new specialized cell type. For the human body to function properly, stem cells need to accurately balance the rate of their division and differentiation, requiring communication at the molecular level to link these two processes.

With the support of the $1.9 million, five-year MIRA grant, Shariati and his team of researchers will study and identify the molecular mechanisms that directly link stem cell division and differentiation so this knowledge can be leveraged for cell therapy purposes in clinical settings in the future.

Shariati’s research primarily focuses on stem cell fate in embryonic stem cells, which unlike other stem cell types, can grow into virtually any cell type in the body, also known as pluripotency, and hold unlimited self-renewal potential. These remarkable properties allow researchers to expand embryonic cells in a petri dish without the need to work directly with embryos. 

“Our hope is by gaining a deeper understanding of the key players in embryonic stem cell division and differentiation, we will be able to more precisely control what type of cell we can make and be able to develop fully differentiated and functional cells for the purpose of regenerative medicine,” Shariati said.

Although many studies have focused on embryonic stem cell differentiation or division individually, much remains unknown about the foundational biology and molecular feedback mechanisms linking embryonic stem cell division and differentiation. Shariati’s goal is to address these mysteries and provide novel strategies for therapeutic applications.

“Our goal is to make the most out of this opportunity by discovering new findings that will allow us to help patients in the future,” Shariati said. “It comes with lots of excitement and responsibility.”

Shariati will collaborate with researchers at UC Santa Cruz, Stanford University, and the University of Tubingen. He thanks his mentors and lab members for their support in accomplishing this award.