Institute investigator wins selective award

Lay Teng Ang (Center) preparing to do research with the deadly Nipah virus

Institute scientist Lay Teng Ang, PhD was one of three researchers nationally who were honored with a grant providing up to $1.2 million over six years. The Additional Ventures Catalyst to Independence Award gives highly promising postdoctoral researchers grant support that will lift them toward a tenure track faculty position. Ang, a Siebel Investigator in the institute, will get roughly $200,000 per year over six years.

Additional Ventures is a new organization that has dedicated itself in large part to help find new therapies for single-ventricle heart disease. This is a devastating disease in which babies are born with a heart that is largely or completely missing one of its four chambers. The other awardees were Hananeh Fonoudi from Northwestern University and Sanjeev Ranade from the Gladstone Institutes. The award includes research funds, a stipend, salary support for technical staff, and a supplement that can be used for family or health care. 

Ang's research focuses on the generation of synthetic human blood vessels from pluripotent stem cells. This work was a critical part of the research that she and institute member Kyle Loh, PhD, recently published on the effects of the deadly Nipah virus on human blood vessels. Ang is now extending that work to look at how blood vessels can be inserted into organoids, which are laboratory-grown cell masses that resemble organs. She aims to build a vascularized heart organoid containing both blood vessels and heart cells. Growing viable organoids in the laboratory is considered an essential step toward growing tissues that can repair or replace natural organs.

“The problem in the field is that organoids don’t survive well over the long term, and much of that is due to the lack of blood vessels,” Ang said. “The solution is to vascularize them with real, three dimensional blood vessels.” The hope is that eventually this will help laboratory-grown tissues survive and integrate when transplanted into patients with heart diseases, such as single-ventricle heart tissue. 

“This kind of work is absolutely essential in realizing the potential of stem cell-based therapies,” said Ang’s mentor Phil Beachy, PhD, who is also a member of the institute. “We can learn to grow the best possible tissues in the lab, but if they can’t survive transplantation, they won’t be much good therapeutically.”