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Environmental Factor, May 2012

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Stem cell fellow moves to UNC

By Robin Arnette

Raluca Dumitru, M.D., Ph.D.

Dumitru said she will bring an extensive knowledge of new ES protocols and reprogramming technology (see text box), learned under Hu’s guidance, to her position as director of the UNC Human Embryonic Stem Cell Core Facility. (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

Guang Hu, Ph.D.

Hu said of Dumitru’s work on the human ES cell high-throughput screening platform, “It will pioneer the use of these cells in environmental health science studies and open up research directions that were previously inaccessible to environmental scientists.” (Photo courtesy of Steve McCaw)

One of the reasons postdocs consistently rank NIEHS as one of the best places to work is the top-notch research training they receive at the Institute. The experience prepares them for a highly competitive job market, as is the case for Raluca Dumitru, M.D., Ph.D., one of the scores of NIEHS postdocs who have landed satisfying careers in the real world.

Dumitru, formally an NIEHS Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) fellow, has accepted a position as director of the Human Embryonic Stem Cell Core Facility at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. She will help UNC scientists who are interested in using human embryonic stem (ES) cells in their research and will also apply what she’s learned over the years to do projects of her own.

“Embryonic stem cells are so unique, because no other cells in the body can differentiate and give rise to all of the cells that comprise a normal embryo,” Dumitru declared. “Studying them allows me to understand normal development and how diseases arise. With my medical background, the subject is perfect for me.”

Finding her calling

Dumitru finished her medical degree in her native Romania, but when her husband came to the United States to pursue a doctorate in biochemistry, she followed him west. She said she initially planned to study for the medical board exam, but later decided a Ph.D. would give her a different perspective on human illness. She got hooked on research at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and completed her doctorate there in 2007.

That same year Dumitru began studying the molecular mechanisms of cell death as a postdoc at UNC. Mohanish Deshmukh, Ph.D., served as her advisor, and it was during this stint that she first worked with ES cells. After three years, she joined the NIEHS Stem Cell Biology Group led by Guang Hu, Ph.D., to get more in-depth training.

Hu said Dumitru exhibited all of the qualities one wants in a researcher — persistence, critical thinking skills, and a willingness to try new things. She studied the Ccr4-Not complex, a newly discovered regulatory complex in human ES cell self-renewal. Dumitru was successful in determining the complex’s role in maintaining cell identity between mouse and human ES cells, establishing culture procedures for human ES cells using the latest findings, and building a high-throughput screening platform using human ES cells to study the impact of environmental factors on human development and disease.

Hu had no doubt that Dumitru was a superb fit as director of the UNC stem cell core. He said, “Her training and experience will transform the current facility and greatly accelerate its research using human stem cells.”

In addition to being a wife and researcher, Dumitru is also the mother of a seven-year-old son. She said she spends as much time with him as she can after work and especially on the weekends. When asked how she is able to balance it all, she said it helps to have a supportive spouse and to know where your priorities lie.

“The most important thing to me is being a mom,” Dumitru added, “but when you love the work you do, you find ways to weave all of your responsibilities together.”

Reprogramming cells

Dumitru said a Japanese group first reprogrammed human skin fibroblast cells into stem cells in 2007. Members of the team were able to transform the skin cells, by introducing four specific transcription factors that were critical for reverting these somatic or body cells back to an undifferentiated state. Dumitru believes the technology may offer a viable treatment option for people suffering from a variety of conditions, for example, neurodegenerative disease.

“You could take the patient’s skin fibroblasts, introduce those transcription factors, and differentiate the cells into neurons,” Dumitru explained. “Theoretically, you could transplant those neurons. This research is in its infancy, but I think it has huge potential.”

Dumitru is an author on a new paper from the Hu group featured as an Intramural paper of the month (see summary).

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