Chance Encounter Leads to A Unique Stem Cell Research Internship

For Brian Castelluccio ’12, a chance encounter in a golf cart on the Trinity campus opened up a remarkable opportunity.

Castelluccio, a neuroscience major at Trinity, was shuttling alumni during Reunion Weekend on campus after his sophomore year. One of his passengers was Elizabeth Thrasher-Broidy ’80, a Trinity aluma who hadn’t been back on campus in over a decade. After an engaging ‘golf-cart’ conversation, Thrasher-Broidy’s question—“What is your passion here at Trinity, Brian?”—led to a conversation, continued throughout the weekend, about the College’s Neuroscience Program and Castelluccio’s own research interests.

Thrasher-Broidy, a former political science and international studies major at Trinity, whose post-Trinity career has focused on media and technology ventures, has also had a long-standing interest in wellness and in brain science.

“I was thrilled to hear from Brian about what was happening in the sciences at Trinity, and particularly, about the school’s programs in the field of neuroscience,” says Thrasher-Broidy.

Following their initial encounter, she and Castelluccio stayed in touch. Shortly thereafter, Thrasher-Broidy learned about the evolution of the innovative Regenerative Medicine Institute at Cedars-Sinai Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles, led by Dr. Clive Svendsen, Ph.D. Thrasher-Broidy’s husband, Marc Broidy, is on the Board of Governors, where his father, Steven D. Broidy, has been Chairman and his grandfather, Samuel Broidy, was Founding Life Chairman.

Regenerative medicine aims to restore function in diseased or aged tissues through either revitalizing existing cells or the transplantation of new cells. Cedars-Sinai’s new Institute is the center for all stem cell and regeneration projects on the Cedars campus and is in the forefront in this field, globally.

“Marc and I put our heads together to see how we might be able to create a high-level internship opportunity for a Trinity student in this prestigious new program,” Thrasher-Broidy says.

The result was that, as Castelluccio notes: “Thanks to Marc and Elizabeth, and my experience in Trinity’s Neuroscience Program, I spent the summer of 2011 in one of the most impressive neural stem cell laboratories in the world.”

Dr. Svendsen’s lab focuses on the generation of human neural stem cells that could be used to treat disorders such as Parkinson’s and ALS. Castelluccio’s work examined the applications of neural stem cells to spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic disease of the motor neurons. Historically, individuals with SMA rarely survive into adulthood, adding to the major significance of this program and center at Cedars-Sinai.

Castelluccio explains that the technology now exists to reprogram adult cells from a variety of organ systems back to the stem cell state. Stem cells, whether taken from embryos or reprogrammed from adult cells, are generally “pluripotent”—capable of generating any tissue of the human body.

The advantages of this technology are significant in two ways. Being able to use adult stem cells for at least some research means avoiding the ethical issues associated with using human embryos. And from the clinical perspective, using someone’s own cells to create tissue used in the treatment of that person’s disease minimizes the possibility of rejection of that tissue by the immune system.

Castelluccio further explains the research this way: “You can isolate adult cells from patients and reverse those cells in developmental time to determine where in the cellular development something went wrong. You’re studying diseases in a controlled fashion that can show where you could intervene using gene or stem cell therapy.”

Although Castelluccio’s internship involved primarily molecular biology work, his current graduate school studies bring him back to a long-standing interest in the intersection of science and the humanities. As a Ph.D. candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Connecticut, he is now pursuing research on the relationship between language and autism. His goal is to combine neurology research and direct work with patients suffering from neurological disorders and injuries.

Thrasher-Broidy, who is a member of Trinity’s Board of Fellows, is enthusiastic about the possibilities for future connections between Trinity and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, along with others of the world’s leading hospitals in the future.

“This internship was an example of how alumni can directly affect the lives of students and help shape a vision of what a Trinity liberal arts education can mean as we move forward in the upcoming decades. I sincerely hope other alums will think about developing ‘out-of-the box’ ideas for leveraging the value of a Trinity education,” she says. “So much is possible!”