Faces of the Foundation: Kyle Loh

February 5, 2018
Bennett McIntosh
Livermore, Calif

Each year, about 100,000 patients in the US get an organ, cell, or tissue transplant – but there are over a million patients on the waiting lists, many of whom will never get their transplant. Unless, that is, Hertz Fellow Kyle Loh gets his way. Within 20-30 years, Loh hopes that his research will let patients opt for a lab-grown artificial organ replacement, opening lifesaving treatment to many more people.

A daunting task, sure, but Loh isn’t one to let scientific discovery wait. After graduating from Rutgers University at the age of 16, Loh spent a year leading a team of researchers at the Genome institute of Singapore, before starting his PhD at Stanford. Now a 24-year-old investigator at Stanford, Loh has yet to slow down.

Growing an organ from scratch may seem like an impossibility, but, Loh says, we already do it all the time: During the course of our development from embryo to infant, each of us formed each and every one of our organs from scratch. The trick, he says, is learning enough about how cells “talk” to each other – determining where they move to and how they differentiate into different types of tissue – to recapitulate the process in the lab.

Here, Loh and his collaborators already making remarkable breakthroughs. During his PhD, under Irving Weissman, Loh and his collaborators “mapped” the cues that drive stem cells to develop into different types of tissue. Last year, Loh made “multipotent” stem cells (which can develop into all the cells needed to form, say, a lung), and regenerated injured lung tissue in mice by the simple expedient of injecting these multipotent lung cells.

But Loh isn’t content to merely transform how we think about organ donation. During his Hertz Fellowship at Stanford, Loh befriended fellow Hertzie Will Allen, a PhD candidate in neuroscience. “Meeting a Hertz Fellow is really refreshing,” said Loh, “They are, without exception, passionate and intelligent, and you cut to the heart of the matter really quickly.”

Allen got Loh excited about neuroscience – a field the latter had little experience in – and the two are now both housemates and collaborators on a project to change how we understand the human brain. Combining their respective areas of expertise, the two are working to grow stem cells into neurons, the building blocks of the brain. “We’re trying to understand the design principles behind how the brain is assembled,” says Loh.

If there are any brains up to the task of understanding their own formation, they can be found between the ears of these two Hertzies.