Graduate Symposium Expands its Reach

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Rothstein, MD, PhD, at the research poster session for the Fourth Annual Inter-Institutional Graduate Research Symposium.

Collaboration and a chance to change someone's life — these were themes of the Fourth Annual Inter-Institutional Graduate Research Symposium hosted by Cedars Sinai graduate students. The Oct. 21 all-day event drew students from 13 institutions, up from 10 last year, to the campus.

Whether it was the guest panel of science entrepreneurs, the esteemed keynote speaker or the students themselves, the aim was to share research and ideas throughout the day.

"The goal is to get graduate students from Southern California in one location so we can communicate, share our research with each other and foster collaboration," said Victoria Dardov, a member of the Cedars-Sinai graduate student association who headed the symposium's organizing committee.

One highlight was an hour-long presentation by the keynote speaker, Jeffrey Rothstein, MD, PhD. He is founding director of the Robert Packard Center for ALS Research at Johns Hopkins and the John W. Griffin, MD Director for the Brain Science Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore.

Rothstein focused on the pathology of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a devastating disease of the central nervous system that causes weakness and muscle atrophy. The disorder, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is ultimately fatal. Only one medication is offered for treatment, riluzole, which came on the market in 1995. Rothstein's lab was responsible for much of the research on the drug. Riluzole is not a cure, and at best only adds a year onto a life if it is prescribed early enough after the onset of the disease, Rothstein said.

Rothstein explained the frustrations of studying a disease that is difficult to predict and is typically diagnosed a year after the first symptom appears.

Still, there is hope. More than 20 ALS-related genes have been discovered, and multiple clinics and research institutes are collaborating on research. "No one lab can work out these biomedical complexities alone," Rothstein said. One of the research initiatives is the Answer ALS project, which involves Johns Hopkins University, Massachusetts General Hospital and the Cedars-Sinai Board of Governors Regenerative Medicine Institute. In addition, Cedars-Sinai recently received approval for a clinical trial to test the use of stem cells and gene therapy to treat ALS.

Rothstein, a Maryland resident, spent the day before the symposium with graduate students who wanted to show him a real Southern California day. They rode bicycles along the path on the Santa Monica boardwalk and hiked through Runyon Canyon Park in Los Angeles. Besides being fun, the activities gave the students a chance to informally interact with a renowned visiting scientist.

Other symposium highlights:

  • High-powered professionals led a panel on careers in industry, "From PhD to R&D: Starting Up." They said there is great room for partnership and collaboration between academic institutions and private industry to make medical progress. The panel included Janine Bilsborough, PhD, group leader of Cedars-Sinai's Inflammatory Bowel Disease Drug Discovery and Development unit, and leaders from Vertex Pharmaceuticals, PhenoVista Biosciences, Knobbe Martens Intellectual Property Law and Organovo Holdings Inc.
  • Fifty-two students presented their research projects as abstracts in posters and 10 presented oral research reports. Ja Yeon Kim of the University of Southern California took top poster honors for "Lipid rafts associated with autophagosomes induced by HCV mediate HCV RNA replication." The first-place winner for oral presentation was Ryan Middleton of Cedars Sinai, for "Newt exosomes are bioactive on mammalian cardiac tissue."

Besides Cedars-Sinai and USC, participating institutions included University of California branches in Irvine, Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego; California State University branches in Los Angeles and San Bernardino; Loma Linda University in Loma Linda; City of Hope in Duarte; California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Children's Hospital Los Angeles; and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute in San Diego.

For more information about Cedars-Sinai's graduate program, visit the Graduate Program in Biomedical Science and Translational Medicine website.