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Samira Musah: Engineering Stem Cell Fate for Applications in Kidney Disease

New faculty member Samira Musah is guiding stem cells to model, and potentially develop new treatment strategies for the widespread disease

Samira Musah will join the faculty of Duke University’s Department of Biomedical Engineering beginning January 1, 2019. With research at the intersection of stem cell biology and organ engineering, Musah will use her new role at Duke to explore how molecular signals and biophysical forces can guide organ development and treat human disease.

Musah’s work is centered around human kidney disease, a disorder that affects nearly 15 percent of the world’s population. Healthy kidneys are able to filter blood, excreting waste and extra fluid as urine. But when kidney function breaks down, dangerous levels of fluid and waste can build up in the body, damaging the heart, brain and immune system.

Because many patients don’t exhibit early symptoms of kidney disease, the illness typically isn’t diagnosed until kidney function is significantly impaired, requiring patients to go on dialysis. While it’s the gold standard for treating kidney disease, dialysis isn’t a cure and only delays the necessity of an organ transplant.

Musah is trying to change that.

“The goal of my work is to use patient-specific stem cells to understand how the kidney develops,” says Musah. “If we could create a platform that mimics human kidney function, we could potentially identify natural disease markers to determine which patients are developing kidney disease and monitor its progression.”  

Using pluripotent stem cells from patients, Musah aims to design environments that give cues to stem cells telling them to differentiate into specific cell types, like kidney cells. By determining how to generate various types of kidney cells, her lab could then create more complex in vitro models that mimic the structure and function of the kidneys, potentially creating a platform for targeted drug development.

“Advancements in the stem cell field have given us tools, like induced pluripotent stem cells, that will allow us to create these new disease models,” says Musah.

Musah will join Duke from Harvard University, where she’s currently a Wyss Research Fellow in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School. In addition to her new role in Duke BME, Musah will be an assistant professor in the Duke University School of Medicine’s Nephrology Division.

“Having the biomedical engineering capabilities from the BME department coupled with the clinical expertise in the medical school will greatly enhance our ability to design robust experimental systems to advance human kidney research,” says Musah. “I’m excited to pursue this work at Duke, where we can hopefully design better disease models that we translate from the bench to the clinic.”

To combine her expertise in the engineering and medical fields, Musah will also become a MEDx Investigator at Duke. A partnership between the Pratt School of Engineering and the Duke School of Medicine, MEDx aims to support new partnerships and projects between engineers and physicians at the university.

As she prepares to move from Massachusetts to North Carolina, Musah is excited about fostering new collaborations with researchers and students across campus.

“When you’re trying to tackle new challenges in biology and medicine, you need to work with people who have a myriad of expertise. You always want to work with people who have a fresh way of looking at problems that we have been trying to solve for a long time,” says Musah. “If we’re trying to address kidney disease, I obviously want to work with people in BME and nephrology, but I also want to explore projects with researchers in cardiology, developmental and cell biology, and even in mathematics and computational biology.”

“Duke will be a wonderful environment where I can pursue these interdisciplinary collaborations, and I can’t wait to get started.”