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Faculty Spotlight: Blood Biology Meets Genetics With Christopher Thom, MD, PhD
Editor's Note: Welcome to our monthly Faculty Spotlight series, in which we sit down with faculty members at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia Research Institute to learn more about their research and roles. Through these spotlights, our readers meet the diverse, dedicated, and distinctive individuals who lead our research community in our mission to improve children's health. It's a new round of spotlights, and this time, we're asking our featured scientists about how they encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion within their labs. In this Q&A, we meet Christopher S. Thom, MD, PhD, assistant professor of Pediatrics at CHOP. Stay tuned for more from our Faculty Spotlight series throughout this year
How long have you been at CHOP, and can you tell us about your research specialty?
I have been on campus since 2008 as a trainee in the University of Pennsylvania MD/PhD program, CHOP Pediatrics residency, and CHOP Neonatal-Perinatal Medicine fellowship. I finished clinical training and started my lab in July 2021, where we’re interested in research questions at the intersection of genetics, blood biology, and cellular therapeutics.
Many translational research projects would benefit from being able to produce large quantities of blood cells in a tissue culture dish – for example, maybe one day volunteer donations won’t be our only source of transfusable blood or platelets. We know that many regions in the human genome impact blood traits and blood cell development, but it can be difficult to identify which genes are important for the biology behind those variations. My lab uses computational and cellular methods to identify biologically important genes, attempting to leverage knowledge of those genes and mechanisms to coax human stem cells to make more blood cells in a tissue culture dish.
Why did you choose to focus on that specialty?
My interests evolved throughout my training. During my PhD, I became interested in genes and molecular mechanisms that impact blood traits. I developed computational and machine learning approaches during residency and fellowship to enhance discovery from human genetic studies. And throughout my clinical training, I’ve seen limitations and problems from current transfusion practices. So, my research focus naturally gravitated to these issues and topics. It turns out there are plenty of related questions that we try to answer in my lab.
Tell us about a recent research project that you are excited about?
We have been interested in a novel gene called Tropomyosin 1 (abbreviated as Tpm1) that normally constrains blood cell formation in human stem cell cultures and in an animal model. The ways Tpm1 biologically constrains blood cell generation are novel, so lifting Tpm1-related repression represents a new way to boost blood cell production that is complementary to other methods currently in use.
I’m also excited about a new project that could change how we approach platelet transfusions in babies. We’re looking at the genes and proteins that make infant platelets different than adult platelets, so that we can evaluate how well human stem cell-derived platelet products match platelets that normally exist in infants. We’re going to learn a lot about infant platelets and aim to develop a new cell therapy product appropriate for infants.
What are the long-term research questions you hope to answer?
One of my major goals is to make blood cell transfusions and clinical transfusion practices safer for the babies I care for in the neonatal intensive care nursery. Infant blood cells are different from platelets and other blood cells that exist in older children and adults. Because of this, transfusions of adult platelets can cause problems in babies. If we can engineer and produce more appropriate blood cells for infants, we can help a lot of babies avoid complications. More broadly, we hope to paint a more complete picture of the genes and biology that determine our blood traits.
How do you support diversity, equity, and inclusion among your research team?
I am proud to be part of a clinical division and research groups that actively promote diversity, equity, and inclusion through our recruitment strategies. My personal goal is to have at least half of my lab comprise women and underrepresented minorities. Though my lab remains small, this feels like something I can directly control to help contribute to diversity in our research community.