Reginald Gray, Ph.D discusses how he applies his medical background to the Human-on-a-Chip Project at ECBC.
Reginald Gray, Ph.D, M.B.A. was always excited about medicine and science. After spending his undergraduate summers doing biomedical research, he graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana and enrolled in graduate school earning his Ph.D in Pharmacology from Case Western Reserve University. He later attended medical school and began working for the United States Medical Research Institute of Chemical Defense (MRICD). Dr. Gray is now an Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) postdoctoral fellow working with the in vitro stem cell group at the Edgewood Chemical Biological Center (ECBC).
Dr. Gray is utilizing his graduate studies in pathology, pharmacology and medical school training in cardiology to support Harry Salem, Ph.D, Chief Scientist for Life Sciences, to develop the Human-on-a-Chip project. The Human-on-a-Chip project is currently focused on using in vitro stem cell technologies in predictive human toxicology of four organ systems: heart, lung, liver, and nervous system. The project will help give better data as to how the human body might react to everything from chemical warfare agents to diseases. Recently, Human-on-a-Chip was awarded $24 million by Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, Pacific, on behalf of Defense Threat Reduction Agency to continue research for Human-on-a-Chip along with Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, the University of Michigan, Morgan State University and The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Dr. Salem said that the In vitro Stem Cell team is very pleased to have Dr. Gray as an integral part of the program. “His contributions to the Human-on-a-Chip Program using human induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC) will further advance ECBC's predictive tools for human toxicology, pharmacology and disease study,” Dr. Salem said. “His participation in all four tissues with emphasis on the heart, will assist in human estimates, risk reduction, and counter measures. In addition, using human iPSCs appears to be a more relevant system for refining, reducing and replacing the use of animals in research.”
Dr. Gray recently sat down with us to discuss his experience with ECBC and future science aspirations.
How did you get involved in the ORISE Research Program and ECBC?
After I moved to the Baltimore area, I was looking for a place to do postdoctoral research. Since my background was in pharmacology, I ended up finding a position at MRICD, where I worked for the last two years. I remained focused on doing a postdoc and continued to search the National Research Council (NRC) and ORISE websites and contact principal investigators in search of local postdoc positions. While speaking with a colleague of mine at MRICD about my situation, he told me that he knew a principal investigator at ECBC doing similar work in the field of in vitro cardiovascular science. He forwarded my CV, and I received an email from Dr. Harry Salem inviting me to an interview. Dr. Salem’s cardiovascular postdoc was leaving in a couple of months and he felt that my background in pathology, pharmacology and medicine was a good fit to resume the cardiovascular stem cell project. So, I applied for the postdoc position through ORISE and began working at ECBC in late March 2013.
Describe the work you do here at ECBC. The other postdocs and I are working together to develop the Human-on-a-Chip. We each specialize in different organs systems, i.e., heart, liver, lung, and the nervous system with the long-term objective of connecting the four systems through microfluidics or other mediums for human predictive toxicity testing. Little data exists on the cardiovascular effects of chemical warfare agents and other compounds that are potential threats to the Warfighter. Currently I am using induced pluripotent stem cells to derive cardiomyocytes (iPSC-CM) to examine cardiovascular toxicity of pesticides and chemical warfare agents. The significance of these studies is that by using human stem cells we eliminate the interspecies variability that limits the interpretation of current cadiotoxicity studies, which are largely developed with animal models.
What is the best part about your role at ECBC?
Before I started working for MRICD, I never thought much about chemical warfare agent research and medical countermeasure development. During my MRICD interview, Dr. Koplovitz and Cpt. Palmer enlightened me as they discussed the significance of and types of research done within the Army’s chembio defense program and the lives it saves in today’s threats of terrorism, both with respect to the warfighter and the civilian population. It is a priceless feeling to serve my country as a scientist, applying my knowledge, ideas and skillsets, knowing that my work is contributing to the needs of the warfighter and society as a whole.
How did you know you wanted to get involved with research and science?
Ever since I could remember, I have always been interested in medicine and science. During undergrad at Xavier University, I was a double major and double minor. The university encouraged science majors to participate in summer research programs, so between my sophomore and junior year, I did a summer program at Wake Forest University in the Department of Neurobiology/Anatomy studying Amyloid Precursor Protein mRNA expression and its role in Alzheimer’s disease. It was my first research experience, and I was hooked. When I returned to Xavier during my junior year, I applied and was accepted in the Science, Engineering, and Mathematics (SEM/MIE) Fellowship program, and I participated in a research project at Xavier for the next two years in the Department of Chemistry. Between my junior and senior year I participated in a second summer research program at Marquette University in muscle physiology while researching Ph.D programs to apply to in the fall of my senior year.
Can you describe your background?
I earned my Ph.D in pharmacology from Case Western Reserve University, and my research specialization was in immunology and pathology. I then attended medical school for three years, but took a financial leave of absence, moved to Baltimore and started working at MRICD, pharmacology branch, under Irwin Koplovitz, Ph.D. The work I participated in at MRICD was similar to the work we do here, predicting toxicity of nerve agents. We also were starting a cardiotoxicity project using the Langendorff apparatus when I resigned and began at ECBC.
Describe your day to day experience at ECBC
I like to begin my day early because I feel the most productive in the morning and usually the lab is less busy. When I am not in the lab doing experiments, I spend time analyzing data, reading scientific articles, planning future experiments, or taking care of administrative tasks.
What is the goal of your research?
The goal of my research is to validate our system through testing pesticides, toxicants, and CWAs using human and animal cardiomyocytes to determine mechanisms of action and make educated estimates of cardiotoxicity. The long-term objective of my research is the development of an in vitro platform for high throughput assessment of human cardiotoxicity of xenobiotics capable of testing compounds of interest to DoD. Additionally, my studies will assist researchers in developing cardiovascular focused medical countermeasure therapies for the warfighter and civilian.
What is the most challenging part of this program for you?
A challenging aspect of the program for me is the transition from working in an academic environment to working in a government environment. Research requires long extensive hours including many weekends. The hours here are more restricted. As a postdoc your goal is productivity and to publish as much as possible. I had to really program myself to work within the restraints of working hours and manage my research studies within the prescribed workweek.
What are your plans for the future after your postdoc ends?
After my postdoc ends, I would like to continue in the field of stem cell technology. Stem cells are at the cutting edge of science and medicine. For example, stem cell technology is spearheading the field of personalized medicine and targeting debilitating diseases such as Parkinson’s disease, Multiple Sclerosis, and cancer, to name a few. My long-term goal is to continue biomedical research in the government or academia and one day have my own lab.