Alum generates successful stem cell career
Stem cell therapies can change lives. Just ask chemical engineering alumna Kristin Comella, who works with physicians and other scientists to redefine what’s possible in the field of regenerative medicine.
As chief scientific officer at Bioheart—a publically traded company focused on the discovery, development and commercialization of autologous cell therapies for the treatment of degenerative diseases—Comella oversees the company’s research and product development activities. She also works to develop new treatment techniques using Bioheart’s cellular products.
But it’s interacting with patients and helping change their lives for the better that Comella finds most rewarding.
“A lot of times there are patients who, for example, have been told they need an amputation because they have limited blood flow in their leg,” Comella said. "And after we introduced stem cells that were able to heal those chronic wounds, they can keep their leg. That’s certainly something that is life-changing for them and very rewarding for me personally.”
A member of the company’s management team since 2004, Comella has been instrumental in Bioheart’s progression from developing regenerative medicine therapies for cardiac indications to treatments for neurological, orthopedic, auto-immune diseases and more.
“In recent years, we began looking at other indications using stem cells from either bone marrow or adipose tissue. We can place these into damaged tissue or even intravenously to allow for the cells to home to areas of inflammation, build new tissue and suppress an over-reactive immune system,” said Comella. “We’ve had wonderful results.”
Number 24 on Terrapin’s Top 50 Global Stem Cell Influencers list, Comella has utilized cord blood derived cells, bone marrow cells, muscle cells and adipose cells in a variety of novel applications.
She also led the team that gained the first-ever FDA approval for clinical trials using a combined cell and gene therapy product called MyoCell SDF-1. Using transduction—when foreign DNA is introduced into another cell via a viral vector—the therapy aims to overexpress stromal cell-derived factor 1 (SDF-1), a protein that promotes a healing response in the body.
“If we can get a cell to overexpress that protein, we can have a much better clinical response in a patient,” explained Comella. “So by making the cell express SDF-1 outside the body and then placing it inside, we can achieve better patient outcomes.”
The experience she gained as an Ohio State grad student helped put her on the path to career success. Comella said, “It was a very challenging program and it taught me to think outside of the norm which helped me achieve success.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of South Florida, she decided to pursue further study in the biological side of the field. Ohio State’s highly regarded chemical and biomolecular engineering graduate program is what first drew Comella’s interest northward.
“Ohio State offered a chemical engineering degree that was integrated with the biological sciences. In particular, some of the different research labs in the chemical engineering department had projects that I found interesting and were cellular based,” Comella explained. “Plus it was listed as one of the top schools in the field, which was important for me.”
After graduating from Ohio State with a master’s in chemical engineering in 2001, Comella worked as a research engineer for startup Osiris Therapeutics, developing cell therapies for osteoarthritis of the knee joint. From there she went on to manage the stem cell laboratory at Tulane University's Center for Gene Therapy and conducted research in the area of spinal cord injuries.
She also co-founded Vet Biologics, which provides stem cell therapy for cats, dogs and horses that suffer from orthopedic issues or other degenerative diseases with minimal treatment options.
“I work with some of the top scientists and physicians in the field, learning different techniques of cellular medicine and implementing those into the clinic,” Comella said.
Her career success is a prime illustration of what the convergence of engineering and medicine can bring. “I believe that bringing an engineering perspective to medicine helps to advance the field,” she said. “And if you think of the body as a system, it makes a lot of sense to look at it from an engineering perspective.”
As for future engineers who might want to follow in her footsteps and help engineer medical breakthroughs, Comella has some sage advice.
“The best advice I can give is try to get some hands-on experience, because a lot of the things that I’ve learned in my field didn’t come until I started doing work in the laboratory,” she said. “Some of the theory that you learn in the classroom is good for a base, but you have to get your hands dirty to really start opening your mind. The labs at Ohio State are involved in some innovative research and are a great place to interact with brilliant scientists and physicians.”
Written by Candi Clevenger, College of Engineering Communications, firstname.lastname@example.org