Can a Leading Laboratory Unlock the Cause of Gastrointestinal Disease?

This story is one in a series marking International Women and Girls in Science Day. Join us as we celebrate some laboratory leaders taking research to new heights.

Faranak Fattahi, PhD, grew up with three older siblings, all of whom became physicians – a fact that might explain her attraction to diseases. As an assistant professor in cellular and molecular pharmacology at UC San Francisco, her lab studies the peripheral nervous system’s role in nerve disorders that make it hard for some people to swallow and digest food.

The peripheral nervous system, which branches off from the central nervous system of the spinal cord and brain, regulates vital organ functions such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. The Fattahi Lab has become a national leader in growing and manipulating stem cells to model peripheral nerves.

“As I became more familiar with the field, it became clear there is so much to be done on the basic science of understanding the peripheral nervous system,” says Fattahi, who came to UCSF in 2017 as a Sandler Fellow, a program that allowed her to become an independent investigator immediately after her doctoral training.

“There are only a handful of other labs in the country that use stem cells to generate and study models of peripheral nerves like we do,” Fattahi says. “If we didn’t grow these models, studying the human peripheral nervous system would be extremely challenging, because it is hard to access and remove the nerves from tissue in sufficient quantities to run experiments in the lab.”

Her team primarily studies gastrointestinal diseases related to the movement of food through the body, which affect millions of people. That includes disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome and dysphagia caused by nerves not functioning properly in the gut, leading to tight contractions that block the passage of food.

Understanding how the peripheral nervous system works could prove useful far beyond the gut, though, Fattahi believes.

“In the future, we hope to map the communication network between the nerves inside the gut and the nerves inside the brain,” she says. “This could help us better understand many different processes, including neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Gastrointestinal issues are a common symptom in these diseases, and we want to understand the role of the peripheral nervous system and brain-gut communication in these diseases.”

Fattahi’s goal is to lay the foundations for new and improved therapeutic strategies for patients.

“Stem cell models can help us search through thousands of drugs and test them on diseased human cells in a dish,” she says. “We can find medications that are effective in reversing the disease in human cells before testing them further.”