Director of the Human Stem Cell Facility, Maya Mitalipova 

Director of the Human Stem Cell Facility, Maya Mitalipova 


Conor Gearin/Whitehead Institute

Maya Mitalipova: Human Stem Cell Facility

When Whitehead Institute researchers take on a stem cell experiment, they are able to collaborate with one of the first scientists to work in the field. Maya Mitalipova, director of the Human Stem Cell Facility, isolated some of the first human embryonic stem cell lines confirmed by the National Institutes of Health in 2001. With 18 years of experience with human embryonic stem cells (HSCs) and having isolated 19 HSC lines at Whitehead Institute, Mitalipova says that her knowledge lets her troubleshoot nearly any hurdle that researchers encounter.

“I think that can only be done by people that have been there since the beginning of the field,” she says. “That’s what makes my position unique.”

Mitalipova grew up in Kazakhstan and completed her undergraduate and PhD studies in Russia, carrying out pathbreaking stem cell research with mice. Following postdoctoral work with Neal First at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she moved to Athens, Georgia, to isolate some of the first human stem cells for BresaGen, Inc., with the goal of studying and treating Parkinson’s disease. But while working for the company, Mitalipova missed the ability to ask big research questions. She began interviewing for academic positions. She chose to be a facility director at Whitehead Institute rather than a faculty position elsewhere because of the chance to collaborate with the researchers here, she says.

“I can’t imagine my life without Whitehead,” Mitalipova says. “I’d never regret that I didn’t take some other position elsewhere, because of how much I’ve learned here. It doesn’t matter what title you have. What is more important for me is the science that I can do, the place I work, and the people around me.”

In her role as facility director, Mitalipova consults with researchers before experiments begin to establish the strategy. If a postdoctoral researcher’s study will focus on stem cell biology, the researcher joins her team to train extensively before they begin experiments of their own. Mitalipova enjoys learning from new team members about research techniques she hasn’t experienced yet. “I am as excited as 14 years ago,” she says. “I’m still learning.”

Improvements in induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) methods allow scientists to take cells from a patient with a disease, transform the cells back into an undifferentiated state, and then grow live tissue to study in the lab. Human embryonic stem cells (HSCs) let Mitalipova figure out how to guide the iPSCs to differentiate into the cell type of interest — for example, into neurons to study neurodegeneration. Once she and her collaborators decide on the differentiation protocol, they apply it to patient iPSCs to study the disease phenotype.

Over the years, Mitalipova has continued isolating new HSC lines for use in research, as well as developing hundreds of iPSC lines. “Our human ES cell lines have been highly desirable to the research community around the world, which makes me feel pretty good,” she says. “The best-known labs around the world working with HSCs and iPSCs have our lines.”

Stem cells are very picky about their environment, Mitalipova says. Experiments that differentiate stem cells into mature tissue run relatively long — often six months or more. The unique challenges of stem cell biology lead Mitalipova to make herself available throughout the week. “If researchers have trouble, they have my cell number and can ask me questions,” she says. They’ll ask if I’ll be in the lab, and I am in the lab 7 days a week — because the cell cultures don’t have weekends or holidays.”

Mitalipova’s weekend companion in the lab for many years was her mother. Maya’s passion for researching neurodegenerative diseases became even stronger when her mother was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Maya began taking care of her.

“Because I had a Parkinson’s patient in my hand, and I was her only caregiver, I understood that disease from the patient perspective as well as from the researcher perspective,” she says. “When you lose the closest person in your life to this disease, you’re very dedicated.” Her mother passed away 18 months ago.

“I realized that it was a gift that I was able to take care of my mom and still keep my job,” Maya says. Her mother knew everything about her daughter’s work in the lab. “Just spending time with my mom, who I miss so much already, was really important to me,” she says. “The best times would be when I would take her to the beach, and she would be so happy to watch the sea. I miss that.”

In her free time, Mitalipova has become an advocate for the human rights of Uyghurs, the ethnic group from Central Asia to which she belongs. “With their families in danger, they have no way to defend themselves. As an American, I can raise my voice to help,” she says.



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