Focus on new faculty: Kris Saha and the intersection of disease, data and public health
Through the glass walls and windows of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building, biomedical engineer Kris Saha sees both stem cell labs and the public, milling about in the street below his office.
The connection between those two entities runs deeper than a nice view. “I see our efforts of crafting cellular stories of dysfunction in a petri dish as being very connected to how patients and doctors and families live through disease,” says Saha. "Here at UW, I'm pretty excited to see how this connection is made.”
Through a combination of cellular analysis and health data shared over time by willing and engaged subjects, Saha hopes to explore new, more meaningful ways for patients and research to intersect in the study of disease.
Saha joined the Department of Biomedical Engineering as an assistant professor in fall 2012. Already, the Biomedical Engineering Society has honored him as a “rising star” in tissue engineering research, and he participated in the Frontiers in Bioengineering workshop at Georgia Tech in late February 2013.
He grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, close to the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army Redstone Arsenal. Science and engineering permeated his life: Nearly every adult he knew worked as an engineer of some kind, including his father, who was a civil engineer. "I ended up being interested in building things,” says Saha. “I found that chemistry really came naturally to me."
He earned his undergraduate degree in chemical engineering at Cornell University and a master's degree in biotechnology from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.
His doctoral research at the University of California-Berkeley focused on both experimentally and computationally analyzing stem cell development and on designing materials for adult stem cell culture. It's work he continued through his research as a postdoctoral fellow at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology.
Much of that computational work followed Saha to UW-Madison. He’s been examining what happens during the process of creating induced pluripotent stem cells, where adult cells undergo a “reprogramming” process that reverts them to an embryonic state, creating stem cells. “Does it recapitulate the same developmental path, but in reverse?” asks Saha. “Some of the experiments and results that we have suggest that it's actually a whole different path that these cells take.”
Understanding the development of these induced stem cells—particularly the sources of “noise” that influence their reprogramming and maturation—will be crucial for leveraging stem cells to improve how we predict and treat disease. For example, multiple sclerosis affects both the nervous system and the immune system. With reliable reprogramming procedures, researchers could use blood or skin tissue from individual patients and engineer in the petri dish both nerve cells and immune cells specific to the patient. Researchers then would be able to study dysfunction within actual human cells and tissue structures specific to individual patients. “If you want to start to dissect symptoms that are going across various parts of the body, in theory we should be able to make those parts of the body in a dish and further mix and match at will in the lab,” says Saha.
And while stem cells offer fine-grain analysis of human biology, Saha sees them as only one component of a suite of next-generation tools for understanding the biology of disease and dysfunction in the body.
Harnessing "big data" also could have a huge impact on how researchers think about disease modeling. With the rise of personal health and fitness data trackers—some commercial, like Fitbit; some academic, like a project called Asthmapolis, which matches location data to asthma inhaler use—people are tracking more longitudinal data about their health than ever before. Coupling cellular analysis of disease with that sort of voluntarily submitted, long-range health data could be key to uncovering the full picture of how different diseases manifest over time. "To me, an interesting question is how that kind of data gets encoded molecularly," says Saha. "How does the biological story that we craft here with a publication in a peer-reviewed journal get wrapped up into patterns that you can see in tracking data from something like the Fitbit or Asthmapolis?”
For Saha, these questions are part of a broader shift in the nature of disease modeling, research and diagnosis, requiring new considerations of the relationships between researchers, research participants and the public. UW-Madison held appeal for Saha in part because it seemed a fertile space in which to explore these ideas. He cites the Marshfield Clinic, UW Hospital and the Waisman Center at UW-Madison as facilities that provide high-quality care while helping researchers build a strong relationship with their patients. Through these partnerships, "we gain richer phenotypic information important for research but also a way to do science that is harmonious with what the community wants," he says.