Event Recap: BME Seminar - James Wells, Cincinnati Children's Research Foundation

Oct 19 2021 | By Abigail Ayers

Developmental biology: while many think of this as a basic science field, some of its most important questions require engineering to find the answers. The latest talk in the Columbia BME Seminar Series led by Dr. James Wells on Friday, October 15 highlighted the beauty of combining biology and engineering principles for pushing boundaries and making new discoveries.

Wells is an endowed professor at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Research Foundation in the Division of Developmental Biology and director for basic research in the Division of Endocrinology. He is also co-founder and Chief Scientific Officer of the Center for Stem Cell and Organoid Medicine. Wells' research focuses on the processes by which gastrointestinal and endocrine organs form in the developing embryo and how they maintain systemic metabolic homeostasis. His lab has pioneered approaches for generating gastrointestinal tissue organoids, and uses human organoids and mouse models to study endocrine control of digestion and metabolism, congenital defects of the digestive tract, and enteric pathogens. In addition to his extensive research and leadership roles, Wells’ dedication to teamwork and passion for training the next generation of scientists was evident as he made sure to highlight different contributions from students and collaborators. He joked with the audience about the research woes of graduate students, while at the same time providing a sense of encouragement and appreciation for the challenging yet essential role student researchers play in the progression of science.

In his talk, titled “Engineering human gastrointestinal tissues from pluripotent stem cells,” Wells discussed the variety of exciting applications of human organoids in research and medicine. Organoids are currently used for studying how human organs form, creating disease models, and bolstering patient analysis and biobanking; looking to the future, researchers are working hard to develop organoid systems for patient-specific drug testing and eventually artificial transplantation. While organoids can be derived in different ways, the Wells group directs the differentiation of human pluripotent stem cells into organoids by recapitulating normal organ development. This process requires an understanding of embryonic development as the blueprint for its artificial replication. In general, organs have simple cellular functions that rely on a more complicated structure and communication system involving the entire body; this makes them difficult to accurately mimic through a lab-grown organoid. In order to create these small organ-like structures, the organoids must have key organ features such as multicellular complexity, basic tissue architecture, and representative organ function. Still, organoids are simplified versions of the organs they represent and often lack important cell types like neurons and immune cells. This area is of interest to the Wells group, and through their work they have demonstrated the ability to coax development of immune cells and a basic nervous system into organoids. Not only were they able to cultivate the cells into the organoids, they also proved that these cells held functional roles. Wells also talked about their success in engineering complexity through co-development of three germ layers, an important step toward better replication of organs in the body. Moving forward, Wells sees a bright future for tissue engineering and the role of organoids in studying and fighting human disease. His group plans on working to generate separate organ components for combination more intricate systems, as well as developing devices with vascular beds to better incorporate vascularization ex vivo.

You can read more about the Wells lab’s developmental biology research here. His engaging lecture was the latest of many in this semester’s seminar series hosted by the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University. If you are interested in attending in person or virtually, the weekly series takes place on Friday mornings at 11:00 AM Eastern and includes a variety of renowned academics from top universities to talk about their specific research and experience.

Learn more and register for the seminar series!