Prof. O’Connor directs research in the area of cell and tissue engineering and specializes in stem cell technology and oncology. She earned a B.S. magna cum laude in chemical engineering from Rice University where she was a George R. Brown and Robert A Welch Merit Scholar. As a Weyerhaeuser Fellow at Caltech, Kim O’Connor earned a doctorate under the tutelage of James E. Bailey, a leader in the field of biomolecular engineering. After completing postdoctoral training in molecular and cellular biology at Caltech and Northwestern University, Dr. O’Connor joined the faculty of Tulane University where she is currently a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Surgery, Cancer Center and Biomedical Sciences Graduate Program. She has served as a visiting professor in the Center for Cell and Gene Therapy at the Baylor College of Medicine.
Currently, Prof. O’Connor’s research focuses on human mesenchymal stem cells. These are highly robust cells with broad differentiation potential that regulate the immune response and home to injured tissue, among other therapeutic properties. As such, these stem cells have potential application to treat a range of disorders including arthritis, heart attack and cancer. Prof. O’Connor is investigating the molecular mechanisms governing stem cell migration to improve their homing to injured tissue. In another project, her research group utilizes computation and kinetics to design strategies to amplify the stem cells while retaining their therapeutic properties. To date, Prof. O’Connor has obtained research funding as principal investigator from such agencies as NASA, NIH and NSF. She has been invited to deliver numerous presentations in the US and abroad. Her research assistants have obtained prestigious positions at NIH, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Johns Hopkins and Merck, among others.
For her professional achievements, Prof. O’Connor has been honored with the NASA Space Act Award, past membership on the editorial board of the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Medicine,the Tulane Health Sciences Award for Leadership & Excellence in Intercampus Collaborative Research, Who’s Who Among American Teachers, Tulane University Interdisciplinary Teaching Award, Society of Tulane Engineers and Lee H. Johnson Award for Teaching Excellence, Tulane Award for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and Texas Society of Professional Engineers Outstanding Engineering Student Award. In addition, she has been recognized by Sigma Xi, Tau Beta Pi and Phi Lambda Upsilon.
Stem Cell Migration and Homing
Adult stem cells exist as a reservoir for tissue repair during homeostasis. They have a remarkable capacity for self-renewal in an undifferentiated state and can differentiate to replace damaged cells in tissue. It may be possible to harness the unique properties of stem cells to cure disease, regenerate tissue, repair traumatized tissue and reverse the degenerative effects of aging.
The efficacy of systemically delivered stem cell therapies is contingent on their homing to injured tissue. Our research group is interested in elucidating the molecular mechanisms underlying stem cell homing. In particular, we were the first to report that a potent pro-inflammatory cytokine, macrophage migration inhibitory factor, inhibits the migration of adult stem cells derived from bone marrow stroma. A small-molecule antagonist to this cytokine restores migration in stem cell preparations from all donors examined. Macrophage migration inhibitory factor is broadly implicated in trauma and disease and is likely to be upregulated in injured tissue targeted by stem cell therapy. This cytokine and its antagonist may have utility to regulate stem cell motility and improve the homing of stem cell therapies to injured tissue.
One of the challenges to realizing the therapeutic potential of stem cells is their scarcity in adult tissue. To collect the quantity of cells required for clinical procedures, stem cells are subject to ex vivo amplification. Although adult stem cells can repair tissue in vivo throughout an entire lifetime, they do not proliferate and differentiate as effectively ex vivo. Preserving the regenerative capacity of stem cells during amplification is essential to the development of effective stem cell therapies and is the subject of research in our laboratory.
Clinical applications of human bone marrow stromal cells are limited by rapid depletion of progenitors from culture during ex vivo amplification. As a consequence, improved amplification methods that enrich progenitor content are required for marrow stromal cells to be a feasible cell source for stem cell therapies. Our research group utilizes an integrative experimental and computational approach to achieve a mechanistic understanding of progenitor enrichment that will facilitate the rational design of amplification strategies.
A new era in tissue engineering is emerging, one which interfaces with computer science. This trend parallels the integration of computational analysis into the biological sciences as a whole. Computation has dramatically changed the degree of complexity in research and yielded significant insight into living systems. To date milestones in tissue engineering have been achieved largely through empirical investigation. Mathematical models have the potential to significantly influence future developments in this field given the intrinsic complexity of its products. Our research group has developed a computational model that predicts the kinetics of tissue self-assembly. The representative system for this work is spheroids of human prostate cancer cells that have application to high-throughput and patient-specific drug testing.