Shriners Children’s Research Director Named to National Academy of Medicine
Farshid Guilak, Ph.D., research director at Shriners Children’s St. Louis, recently received one of the highest honors in the field of health and medicine. He has been elected to the National Academy of Medicine.
Guilak will be inducted as part of the class of 2022. This comes the same year he was elected to the National Academy of Engineering. These academies are reserved for the most elite in medicine and engineering, for individuals who “show outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.”
“Dr. Guilak is an outstanding biomedical scientist whose groundbreaking research is improving the quality of life of children with orthopedic conditions. We are proud of his recent honors and to have him as the director of our Shriners Children’s St. Louis research center,” said Marc Lalande, Ph.D., Shriners Children’s vice president of research.
His membership in both academies gives him tremendous opportunities to make a difference in the fields of health and medicine, Guilak said.
“The roles of these academies are to advise the government on any issues related to engineering or medicine. I am truly honored to have the opportunity to play a role in this capacity at the national level, and bring more attention to the importance of interdisciplinary work that spans engineering and medicine,” said Guilak.
Currently, Guilak leads roughly a dozen research projects focusing on preventing and/or slowing the degenerative effects of osteoarthritis and juvenile idiopathic arthritis. However, he says the National Academy of Medicine and of Engineering have specifically taken notice of the lab’s work in cell engineering. Through decades of work, Guilak’s team has used genome engineering to create a cell that doesn’t exist normally in nature. The cell can release a drug if/when it senses inflammation in the body. An animal study showed that the modified cells, when put into cartilage, can eliminate pain and prevent degeneration any time an inflammation flare-up is imminent.
He hopes to bring this treatment option to patients, in the form of a clinical trial, within the next 10 years. Right now, it’s a proof of concept.
One project that is going to clinical trial soon includes growing cartilage from a patient’s own stem cells in hopes of avoiding the need for joint replacements. Guilak says the process includes purifying stem cells (taken from child or adult patients) and putting them in a proprietary 3-D mesh to grow cartilage. The growth process takes about four weeks. In the end, his team has a piece of cartilage in the shape of a joint that can be implanted in a patient’s body where the cartilage was lost.
The results of this level of innovation could change the trajectory of a child’s life.
“We have seen patients who’ve had a joint replacement as a child and then they need a second one a few years later. That’s what we want to prevent. Can we preserve those hips so they are in their 30s, 40s or 50s before they get a metal and plastic joint replacement? We hope we can do that by resurfacing the cartilage that’s missing with new cartilage that’s grown from their own cells,” explained Guilak.
A father himself, it is obvious that Guilak has a deep love for the patients his research will eventually touch. Guilak admits he was once a young boy who simply fell in love with science. Thanks to his own dedication and the support of his parents (they gave him his first microscope, after all) and educators along the way – Guilak is living his dream.
The unique partnership between Washington University and Shriners Children’s St. Louis allows Guilak to serve in dual roles – including as co-director of the Washington University Center for Regenerative Medicine. In total, he leads a group of about 30 scientists. The research team splits time between his lab on the Washington University campus and at the Musculoskeletal Laboratory at Shriners Children’s St. Louis.
For researchers more attuned to working with microscopes and pipets, going to a lab inside a children’s hospital offers unique perks.
“It’s been an incredible experience to have our laboratory within the hospital, especially right next to the play area where the kids are. So, every time our students and staff members walk into the lab, we see the kids. It’s so motivating to know we are doing this research to directly improve the lives of these children,” reflected Guilak.
While the accolades are pouring in for Guilak, maybe the most treasured feedback he receives is from his team. He works hard to develop a team-centered group that is on fire for science. What he has found is a family of scientists who enjoy pushing innovation forward together.
“His ability to make time and prioritize his trainees is unparalleled. Whenever his door is open, he welcomes drop-in meetings from lab members and enjoys engaging in spontaneous brainstorming sessions that are very energizing to trainees,” said Kelsey Collins, Ph.D., researcher.
“Farsh has fostered an environment in which students and postdocs thrive, not just as trainees but also as individuals with personal ambitions. I am truly grateful that I never once felt anxious that I had to choose between a family and a career,” said Feini (Sylvia) Qu, V.M.D., Ph.D., researcher.
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