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The Go-To Guy

Hongjun Song, Ph.D., an associate professor of neurology and member of ICE, collaborates with many colleagues on campus to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into various neural cells.

Dr. Hongjun Song in the lab. Dr. Hongjun Song

He’s considered the go-to guy by clinician colleagues, and referred to as a “star” by fellow scientists for his expertise in designing stem cells for all manner of research projects.

“We know how to do it, so everyone wants to collaborate,” Hongjun Song, Ph.D., says matter-of-factly, crediting his lab.  The associate professor of neurology does not abide hype, neither about himself nor stem cells. 

Although mainstream excitement swirls around regenerative medicine with the promise of cell transplantation, he insists that stem cells have more immediate promise as tools by which scientists can better understand disease mechanisms, screen for novel drugs, and put effective drugs on the fast track to the clinic. 

“I think transplantation therapy will eventually come,” he adds, “but there are still a number of roadblocks, and these cells have real power now.  If we use stem cells to quickly find effective drugs that can become common treatments, there will be a greater impact and more widespread benefit than with transplants which, because of being case-by-case, will be expensive.” 

Dr. Nicholas Marigakis in the lab. Dr. Nicholas Marigakis

Song’s not anti-transplant.  In fact, his lab coaxed batches of human embryonic stem cells and those reprogrammed from patient skin fibroblasts to become astrocytes –star-shaped nerve cells normally found in the brain -- that neurologist Nicholas Margakis used to graft into the cervical vertebrae of rodents suffering symptoms of ALS. 

However, Song’s primary interest is investigating the molecular mechanisms of a range of diseases affecting the nervous system.  In the case of ALS, for instance, a nerve disorder in which motor neurons die, his lab has created stem cells from skin biopsies of ALS patients, and is studying these pathologic human motor neurons and astrocytes in culture to search for faulty signaling mechanisms and screen for drugs. 

In collaboration with his wife Guo-li Ming, Ph. D., an associate professor of neurology and neuroscience, Song generated stem cell lines from patient samples not only for ALS, but also for Trisomy 13 and Huntington’s disease. They also made stem cell lines to address psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia.

“We all have our own specific questions,” Song says.

--by Maryalice Yakutchik