Bad to the bone: Stem cell researcher Kris Sunderic curates @RealScientists

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Kris Sunderic (@peer_revue) graduated from Boston University in 2007 with a BS in biomedical engineering before entering the pharmaceutical industry as a research scientist working on vaccine formulations. In 2010 he began his graduate career at the City College of New York and earned his MS in biomedical engineering in 2012 for his research on the effects of mild heat shock on the osteogenesis of mesenchymal stem cells under inflammatory conditions. He continued his research as a PhD candidate, studying the effects of heat shock and ultrasound on stem cells grown in mineralized polymer scaffold, and earned his PhD in 2018. Kris has given talks at both professional conferences and science outreach events, and hopes to continue pursuing his passion for science communiciation.  In his spare time, Kris enjoys stargazing, volunteering to teach STEM curricula, and winning trivia competitions around New York City.

Tell us about your work
If you’ve ever broken a bone, you know bone can heal itself, but this self-repair has it’s limitations. For one, it’s a slow process. Stress fractures can take 6-8 weeks to heal. Two, it only heals well over short distances – no more than a couple of millimeters. For larger bone defects, autologous bone grafts may be required. This is when healthy bone tissue from another part of your body is harvested and used to repair the bone defect, but this could lead to morbidity at the donor site. We could obviate these problems with a tissue engineering solution where a patient’s own bone marrow-derived stem cells are used to generate new bone cells and bone tissue.

My dissertation describes my work culturing bone marrow-derived stem cells (BMSCs or sometimes called hMSCs) in a synthetic, mineralized bone-like biomaterial, and using heat and ultrasound to enhance the bone-forming activity of those cells. Heat and ultrasound help activate signaling pathways that commit these cells to differentiate into bone-forming cells called osteoblasts. The results may enable the development of a new kind of bone graft, or a new treatment method for bone repair in the body.

How did you get into stem cell research?
I began a career in pharmaceuticals doing vaccine research, but when I got to grad school I feel in love with tissue engineering. I loved the idea that with the right inputs, cell activity could be modulated and controlled, and perhaps, they could be guided to repair and regenerate damaged tissue, or treat disease.

As you may know, creatures like starfish and salamanders can regrow lost limbs. This regenerative function, like all bodily functions, is controlled by genes. In our bodies, stem cells can differentiate to become different cell types in the body, and that too is regulated by genes.

Within every cell in our bodies is our complete code, and within it, the “programs” that sustain our lives… and guide us to death. But biology is much more dynamic than a computer algorithm. Cells respond to the entire context of their environment. And so by pulling the right levels we could guide cell function to repair tissue damage and treat disease.

What do you do in your spare time?
Bar trivia.

Bar trivia is without a doubt my top hobby, and I think it’s because it’s always rewarding. There is reward in answering questions correctly, and there is reward in learning something new when you don’t. My team is (semi-)competitive and we’ve been in trivia tournaments around NYC, winning one of them and getting our photo in the newspaper! I take the Jeopardy test every time it’s offered and dream of competing on the show one day.

I also try to keep up with local events and attend what interests me – usually food-related events, concerts, exhibits, etc. I like to spend as much time outdoors as possible, going for a bike ride or taking a long walk in the park. I think it’s important to periodically disconnect and return to nature for meditation and inspiration.

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