Northwestern Medicine’s Edward Gong, MD, has received a 2013 Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award for his proposal entitled “Harnessing the Regenerative Capability of Bladder Smooth Muscle Progenitor Stem Cells to Restore Function to the Obstructed Bladder.” Announced by The Hartwell Foundation in April, eleven individuals representing nine institutions were selected for the award.
Dr. Gong is an assistant professor of Urology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, an attending physician at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and a member of the Developmental Biology Program at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute.
Dr. Gong’s research focuses on a congenital condition called posterior urethral valve that occurs in the urinary system of newborn boys, where obstructive flaps of tissue act like valves in the urethra to prevent outflow of urine from the bladder. The condition can lead to a weak urinary stream, increased urinary frequency, difficulty emptying the bladder, significant loss of bladder function and harmful pressure damage to the kidneys. Unfortunately, about half of children affected with obstructed bladder eventually develop some form of kidney failure that requires dialysis and remarkably, accounting for about 20 percent of the pediatric kidney transplantations performed in the United States.
One in 8,000 boys has an obstructed bladder issue that causes problems ranging from wetting into adulthood to kidney failure. Current treatments include managing the disease through self-catheterization or replacing the organ with artificial bladders, which has the potential to cause other health problems. Dr. Gong aims instead to use a patient’s own stem cells to regenerate bladder tissue and restore normal function.
Each year, The Hartwell Foundation invites a limited number of institutions in the U.S. to nominate faculty members who are involved in early-stage, innovative and cutting-edge biomedical research that has not qualified for significant funding from outside sources. Northwestern University received an award in its first year of participation. The award provides $100,000 in annual direct cost for three years.
“The Hartwell process is very competitive,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation. “Ed proposed a very innovative solution to an unmet and very compelling need.”
“Despite learning how to manage these bladder symptoms, we’ve never really come up with anything that will fix the problem,” said Dr. Gong. “Most research is looking to replace the bladder, but those artificial bladders don’t really work well yet.”
Dr. Gong learned that obstructed bladders have lower levels of stem cells than normal functioning bladders. He thinks that maintaining or restoring normal levels of stem cells in the bladder may stimulate healing or adaptive behavior. Dr. Gong’s team is the first group to study progenitor muscle stem cells in the bladder for a benign disease.
“I want to create a mechanism to help the bladder from deteriorating,” he said. “If it does deteriorate, then I want to be able to reactivate cells within the bladder and regenerate the function. That’s never been done before.”
Long term, to avoid more invasive treatments, Dr. Gong hopes to develop a drug that will reactivate the stem cells or prevent them from turning off.
He is working on labeling the stem cells in genetically altered mice and plans to track the cells. By using knockout mouse models, Dr. Gong will be able to learn how harvesting stem cells and injecting them back into the bladder affects its function.
“We are very grateful for this critical support of Dr. Gong’s innovative research from the Hartwell Foundation,” said Mary J.C. Hendrix, president and scientific director of the Manne Research Institute, affiliated with Lurie Children’s and Feinberg.
“Northwestern is honored to be included among leading universities that nominate candidates for The Hartwell Foundation’s Individual Biomedical Research Award,” said Jay Walsh, vice president of Research at Northwestern. “We are enthusiastic about Dr. Gong’s research to make children’s lives better and look forward to following the progress of this grant.”
For each nominee selected for a Hartwell Individual Biomedical Research Award, the sponsoring participating institution receives a Hartwell Fellowship to fund one postdoctoral candidate of their choice who exemplifies the values of the Foundation. Hartwell Fellowships offer support for two years to scientists in the early stages of their research careers by enabling them to pursue further specialized training as part of professional career development.
The Hartwell Foundation seeks to inspire innovation and achievement by offering individual researchers an opportunity to realize their professional goals. In selecting awardees, The Hartwell Foundation takes into account the compelling and transformative nature of the proposed innovation, the extent to which a strategic or translational approach might accelerate the clinical application of research results to benefit children of the United States, the extent of collaboration in the proposed research, the institutional commitment to provide encouragement and technical support to the investigator and the extent to which funding the investigator will make a difference.
The Hartwell Foundation award and fellowship promise to advance discovery in biomedicine, a top priority for “We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern,” a $3.75 billion University-wide fundraising initiative. More information on “We Will. The Campaign for Northwestern” is available at wewill.northwestern.edu