In this interview as part of the Early Career Innovators series, recognising the amazing translational work being done by postdocs and non-tenured researchers at University College London (UCL), Dr Ariel Finkielsztein highlights his Regenerative Medicine Therapeutic Innovation Network (TIN) Pilot Data Scheme awarded project involving the production of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) for lung regeneration.
What is the title of your project and what does it involve?
My project, “Production of cancer safe iPSC-derived lung progenitor cells for lung regeneration”, involves the production of lung cells that generate components of the lungs. These are required for the diffusion of oxygen into the body and carbon dioxide out of the body with immune compatible cells, or cells that will be more stable in the patient than current cells derived from incompatible donors. In addition, these cells will have a “safety switch” in the form of an inducible tumour-suppressor gene, which will prevent them from becoming cancerous.
What is the motivation behind your project/therapeutic?
There is an unmet medical need for the development of long-term treatment options for patients with lung diseases such as Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF) and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), the latter now classified by the World Health Organization as the third leading course of deaths worldwide, with 3.23 million in 2019. The patients affected by these diseases lose lung cells and structures which are required to breath normally. The available treatments are mainly palliative, and despite some patients managing their disease fairly well, there is a progressive deterioration of the lung. This highlights the need for a permanent solution to effectively extend the quality and life expectancy of affected individuals. With my project, I hope to increase the chances of a permanent solution by engineering immune-compatible cells which are cancer safe.
Why did you want to apply to the Regenerative Medicine TIN Pilot Data Scheme?
I am planning to generate critical and very important preliminary data for a major UKRI-MRC fellowship application and eventually apply for funding to create fully immune compatible lung progenitor cells, complying with MHRA standards for preclinical studies. The long-term goal is to take these engineered cells and methods to a Phase I/II clinical trials recruiting COPD patients – the TIN Pilot Data Scheme has allowed me to kick start this process.
How did you find the TIN Pilot Data Scheme process?
It was difficult at first to identify what exactly was required from me to write my translational research idea as a successful, realistic plan and to communicate it effectively within the Dragons Den format as required in the TIN Pilot Data Scheme. However, I am extremely pleased with the way the Regenerative Medicine Therapeutic Innovation Network has coordinated efforts for mentoring applicants through ACCELERATE, UCL ACO’s superb translational training programme. I received individual coaching from an excellent mentor, who helped me improve my pitching skills for the Dragons’ Den presentation of my translational research idea.
I also attended the ACCELERATE Grant Writing workshop prior to this, which helped me effectively in the process of writing my application. I learnt to clearly identify the problem and where I could provide a solution with my expertise as a scientist.
What do you hope to achieve in the 6 months duration of your project?
I expect to produce sufficient preliminary data supporting the hypothesis that induced pluripotent stem cells can be safely used to produce proximal and distal structures in pre-clinical studies. I intend to continue with further applications to major fellowships and project grants, potentially including partnership with big pharmaceutical companies such as AstraZeneca, AbbVie and Pfizer facilitated through the Therapeutic Innovation Networks (TINs).
About Dr Ariel Finkielsztein
Dr Ariel Finkielsztein is a Research Fellow in the Lung Immunotherapy Group of Prof. Howard Clark and Dr. Jens Madsen, in the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Institute for Women’s Health at UCL. While studying pattern formation and regeneration in the fruit fly (University of Alberta, Canada) and the zebrafish (Western University, Canada), his interest in regenerative medicine evolved from basic science to clinical and applied medical research, immunology, stem cell and regeneration. He is a strong advocate of exploring the interphase from the stem cell and immunology research fields to develop new approaches to solve human diseases and improve the well-being of the population.