Sergiu Pasca Builds Brains to Study Developmental Disease
Sergiu Pasca Builds Brains to Study Developmental Disease

Sergiu Pasca Builds Brains to Study Developmental Disease

The Stanford University professor helped develop a technique to grow brain organoids from induced pluripotent stem cells.

Dec 1, 2019
Emily Makowski

ABOVE: © Golnaz Shahmirzadi Photography

As a boy growing up in Romania, Sergiu Pasca watched dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s wife Elena on television, wearing a lab coat and talking to scientists about chemistry experiments. Elena had no scientific training and was Romania’s premier chemist in name only, but Pasca was captivated. “As a kid, I just loved the idea that she was talking about experiments every single day and discovering something new,” he says.

Inspired, he focused on chemistry in school, won several chemistry competitions, and earned a full scholarship to medical school. While many of his classmates went on to top universities in other countries, he couldn’t. “I didn’t speak English very well,” Pasca, now a stem cell researcher at Stanford University in California, tells The Scientist. “I couldn’t really take the SAT. I couldn’t take the TOEFL [Test of English as a Foreign Language]. I was not scoring; I was not even passing.” So, he stayed local, attending Iuliu Hatieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy, where he joined biochemist Maria Dronca’s lab and started to do research—as much as was possible with a lack of funding and decades-old reagents. “We would sit down and just read and plan what we could do if we were to have the money,” he says. 

In one project, he managed to measure the concentrations of the amino acid homocysteine, which was linked with neuropsychiatric disorders, in children with autism; he and colleagues found higher levels in the autism patients compared with neurotypical kids (Life Sci, 78:2244–48, 2006). Pa?ca then read about Stanford neuroscientist Ricardo Dolmetsch, who had recently switched his lab’s focus to studying autism after his son was diagnosed with the disorder. Specifically, Dolmetsch wanted to differentiate induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) into neurons to study a related genetic disorder called Timothy syndrome. The project intrigued Pasca, and so he reached out to Dolmetsch, hoping to join his lab. But there was a problem. Pasca didn’t have a PhD. 

“I said to him, ‘If you can get yourself a fellowship, then you can come to the lab,’” recalls Dolmetsch, now global head of neuroscience at the Novartis Institutes for BioMedical Research. “I knew how hard that was going to be, and I thought that the odds of him finding a fellowship were kind of small. But I also thought that if he succeeded, it would say a lot about him.” It took him more than a year, but Pasca eventually secured a fellowship from the International Brain Research Organization, and moved to Stanford in 2009.

Not long after joining the lab, Pasca started to develop ways to differentiate neurons from iPSCs and derived them from individuals with and without Timothy syndrome. Two years later, the team reported that neurons derived from reprogrammed skin cells of individuals with the disorder had defects in calcium signaling, a result that made the cover of Nature Medicine (17:1657–62, 2011). “It was one of the first papers showing that you can actually make human neurons from patients and identify changes,” Pasca says. He and a student in the lab also started to grow brain organoids—a side project spearheaded by Pasca’s wife, Anca, who was doing research while completing a pediatrics residency at Stanford.

When Pasca started his own lab at the university in 2014, he continued working on organoids, and in a Nature paper published a few years later, described how tissue resembling the forebrain could model neuron migration during development (545:54–59, 2017). “Most of what we’re doing right now is developing methods to access aspects of human brain development and function that we normally would not have access to, especially everything that is in the second or third trimester or early after birth,” he says.

“Sergiu is incredibly driven and creative,” says Columbia University autism researcher Jeremy Veenstra-Vanderweele, who first met the brain organoid pioneer at a course at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory where Pasca was presenting his research on iPSCs. “His innovations have really changed the approaches that people are able to take using iPSC-based models. Without question, he’s one of the people pushing the field forward.”

Emily Makowski is an intern at The Scientist. Email her at emakowski@the-scientist.com.