By Eric Weintraub and Cristy Lytal
For over 60 years, the Donald E. and Delia B. Baxter Foundation has supported innovative biomedical research at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, each year granting $100,000 awards to two faculty members. This year, the Baxter Foundation awarded Kimberly Gokoffski, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Clinical Ophthalmology at the USC Roski Eye Institute, and Unmesh Jadhav, PhD, Assistant Professor of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at USC. The foundation additionally gave $100,000 in support of the Medical Student Summer Research fellowship program at the Keck School.
Gokoffski will use her award to take the first step in restoring vision to patients blinded by optic nerve disease. Currently, there are no treatments available to help damaged optic nerves regenerate. Gokoffski’s research proposes to address this clinical need by using electric fields (EFs) to promote the regeneration of atrophied retinal ganglion cells (RGCs), the cells that make up the optic nerve. She proposes to demonstrate that EF application is an effective therapeutic modality to direct damaged optic nerves to regenerate and reestablish connections with the brain in living animals.
“Support from the Baxter Foundation will allow us to develop cutting edge technology to regenerate the optic nerve, the cable that relays visual information from the eye to the brain,” said Gokoffski. “If successful, our technology could help restore vision to the millions of patients worldwide who are legally blind from diseases that permanently damage the optic nerve, such as advanced glaucoma.”
Gokoffski intends for the research conducted with the Baxter award to motivate future work to demonstrate functional visual recovery after treatment with EFs.
For his project, Jadhav will interrogate how “epigenetic controls”—or molecular switches that turn genes on or off—can trigger the development and progression of colorectal cancer, which kills 50,000 people a year in the United States. Specifically, Jadhav will study how an epigenetic modifier called Polycomb Repressive Complex 2, or PRC2, affects the transformation of normal cells into cancer cells.
He will study this process using laboratory mice, which will be genetically engineered to carry one or multiple mutations known to cause colorectal cancer, along with different levels of PRC2 activity.
“Findings from this proposal will directly impact our efforts in the development of early cancer detection methods and future therapeutic approaches,” said Jadhav. “I’m deeply grateful to the Baxter Foundation for their pivotal investment in my early research career as a new faculty member at USC.”
The Baxter Foundation is committed to supporting early-career investigators and medical students at educational and scientific institutions across California. The foundation’s ultimate goal is to advance research and medical innovations that will contribute to new treatments for patients.
“We are excited to play a role in supporting Drs. Gokoffski and Jadhav’s research, as well as the research conducted by medical students,” said Jane Haake Russell, president of the Baxter Foundation. “Their work exemplifies the foundation’s mission to support researchers who strive to develop new approaches to improve quality of life.”