Biomedical engineering graduate student receives Blue Flame Award

Jamie Oberdick
September 01, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Lauren Randolph, a graduate research assistant in biomedical engineering at Penn State, has received the Blue Flame Award, given by Addgene, a non-profit plasmid repository. Addgene presents the award to researchers with at least one plasmid deposited at Addgene that has been distributed to other researchers more than 100 times. 

Plasmids are small circular DNA molecules that are distinct from a cell’s chromosomal DNA and exist most commonly in bacterial cells but are also found in archaea and eukaryotic organisms. Plasmids are useful in genetic engineering because they enable researchers to add genes to a cell without altering its chromosomal DNA. 

Plasmids can be customized for various uses, and Randolph received the Blue Flame Award for a plasmid designed for stem cell differentiation applications. Randolph and fellow researchers developed the plasmid, XLone, to manipulate the expression of key genes in stem cells to obtain differentiated lineages, such as pancreatic beta cells or heart muscle cells that can be used for various medical therapies. This research was completed in the lab of Lance Lian, assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Penn State, and was published in Science Advances. 

The goal of XLone is to have very precise control over expression of genes of interest in the lab. Controlled temporal expression of key genes, mimicking natural processes that happen during human development, can be used to program pluripotent stem cells directly to a therapeutically desirable cell type. The pluripotent stem cells can change into any type of human cell, and this process is carried out by a series of cues coordinated by DNA.  

“We wanted a way to have very precise control over the exogenous expression of a gene of interest,” Randolph said. “During human development, cells receive cues at specific times and over precise durations. In order to dissect the genetic underpinnings of cell differentiation and human development, we needed to be able to replicate this level of control in vitro. XLone enabled this.”

In Lian’s lab, XLone is used to better understand and develop improved methods to generate therapeutically relevant cells, like pancreatic beta cells for diabetes therapy or blood cells for circulatory treatments. But according to Randolph, there are many other potential beneficial medical uses. 

“XLone has already been used by many research labs around the world, and it was great to be recognized for that with the Blue Flame Award,” she said. “XLone plasmid has helped global researchers identify the critical pathways and genetic circuits involved in beta cell differentiation, and hopefully will lead to strategies to generate these cells efficiently in the lab for therapeutic uses that help people with a variety of ailments.” 

This work was supported by the Penn State Department of Biomedical Engineering and Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences lab startup funding.

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Last Updated September 01, 2020