Catalyzing Discovery

How HSCI donors are making a difference


In 2020, the Harvard Stem Cell Institute launched the Barry Family HSCI Innovation Award for Early Investigators. With the generous support of the Barry family, this annual award enables early-career HSCI scientists to pursue bold, innovative ideas that have the potential to transform stem cell science and make a difference in patients’ lives.

“With this award, we are supporting our junior faculty whose new ideas can change the course of the field. We’re placing early bets on big ideas with the potential to change a field,” said HSCI Co-Director Douglas Melton, Ph.D. “If successful, these projects will attract more funding and speed the development of new treatments. Not every project will hit a home run, because of the nature of how science works, but the ones that do will have a lasting impact.” 

The first recipient of the award is Jessica Whited, Ph.D., assistant professor of stem cell and regenerative biology at Harvard. Her lab studies the axolotl, a salamander that can regenerate its limbs throughout life. The lab primarily focuses on the limb regeneration process, providing fundamental clues for future efforts aimed at human applications. But the award is supporting a project that is slightly off the beaten path and could reach the clinic sooner: repairing peripheral nerve injuries.

Microscopy image of an axolotl spinal cord.
Cross section of an axolotl spinal cord, with nerves shown in green. Credit: Burcu Erdogan, Whited Lab

The project focuses on the brachial plexus, the network of nerves that controls movement and sensation in the arm. The nerves can be damaged in situations such as car accidents and gunshot wounds, or as Whited is modeling in the axolotl, during birth injury. Her goal is to identify molecules that help axolotls regenerate nerves and use them to improve the success of surgery in patients, where a functional nerve from a different part of the body is used to reconnect the brachial plexus.

“This award has been absolutely catalytic in taking the project to a completely different level,” Whited said. “We can now do the discovery-based studies that are important in early-stage research.”

With the award, Whited has established a collaboration with Dr. Andrea Bauer, an orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. For the first time, they can study patient samples and see which genes are expressed compared to the axolotl. 

In the future, HSCI’s network of scientists can help Whited develop her discoveries into therapeutics. “What’s so great about doing this work at Harvard is meeting potential collaborators who have expertise in translational research,” she said. “They can help us test potential molecules in other models and create bioengineered scaffolds for delivering the molecules, which will be instrumental in getting our work into the clinic and helping patients.”