Biomedical sciences student learns by doing

Graduate student Max Cayo discusses his research with  Dr. Stephen Duncan. “He’s the most scholarly scientist I’ve ever met, and in that sense, I know I'm incredibly lucky to have him as a mentor,” Max says.

Graduate student Max Cayo discusses his research with
Dr. Stephen Duncan. “He’s the most scholarly scientist I’ve ever met, and in that sense, I know I'm incredibly lucky to have him as a mentor,” Max says.

The complex medical questions of tomorrow will require a new generation of scientists with the skills to discover knowledge that enhances human health. The Medical College’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences leverages the expertise of dedicated faculty mentors in an environment that supports innovative thought to train the researchers and scholars who will create the tools, technologies and treatments of the future.

Max Cayo may be a future physician-scientist, but he is already a productive researcher. Midway through his third year of PhD studies in the Medical College of Wisconsin’s Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, Max has accomplished the rare feat of obtaining a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant as a student, and with his mentor, Stephen Duncan, DPhil, is advancing translational research to improve treatments for cardiovascular diseases.

Max is working toward a dual MD-PhD in the College’s Medical Scientist Training Program. He brings a background in medicine, cell biology and drug discovery to the laboratory of Dr. Duncan, a nationally recognized innovator in stem cell and developmental biology. Dr. Duncan is a lead investigator for a
$9 million NIH grant awarded this year to use stem cells to study the
genetics of cardiovascular disease. Max aspires to blend their approaches for the greatest impact on human health.

“Dr. Duncan has been extremely open with and supportive of my ideas, which he has strengthened, shaped and sharpened,” Max said. “His guidance, leadership and mentoring have completely shifted the trajectory of my career and enabled a whole array of opportunities that wouldn’t have otherwise been available.”

Max’s grant, specifically from the NIH’s National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, is to investigate the use of stem cell-derived liver cells to study a common, inherited disorder named familial hypercholesterolemia, which is marked by elevated LDL cholesterol. The disease
affects about one in every 500 people. Cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, which are closely linked with lipid and cholesterol levels, are the leading causes of illness and death in humans, are extraordinarily expensive to treat and manage, and are growing rapidly in the developing world as populations become more prosperous.

By applying techniques honed in the Duncan lab, Max can collect a small sample of skin cells from a patient with hypercholesterolemia and transform them into “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which have the potential to become any type of cell in the body. The research team then influences the stem cells to develop into liver cells. Max hypothesizes that these induced liver cells will carry the same disease characteristics as the patient’s actual liver cells. This would allow researchers to test the effectiveness of new drugs and therapies on liver tissue in the lab, eventually leading to improved treatments for familial hypercholesterolemia.

The biggest challenge in the research is directing the stem cells to become the tissue type wanted, but that is where Dr. Duncan’s counsel is particularly valuable. He is an international authority on generating liver tissue from human stem cells. As a mentor and leader, Dr. Duncan is preparing Max for a promising future as a scientist and physician.

Dr. Duncan is the Marcus Professor of Human and Molecular Genetics; Professor of Cell Biology, Neurobiology and Anatomy; and Director of the Medical College’s Program in Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Biology.

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