Sergio Pasca, MD: Tashia and John Morgridge Endowed Fellow

Grace Hammerstrom
Wednesday, May 1, 2013

This article appeared in the Lucile Packard Children’s News publication in Spring 2013.

Sergiu Pasca, MD, arrived at Stanford with a pipe dream: to generate neurons from patients with autism in order to better understand the cellular underpinnings of this mysterious illness.

By taking non-invasive skin biopsies from patients with genetic forms of autism, he has succeeded in reprogramming them into stem cells and then differentiating those cells into neurons. Through this novel approach, he identified a set of specific cellular defects associated with autism – a discovery that was featured on the cover of Nature Medicine and then in an article published in Nature Neuroscience.

A medical doctor by training in his home country of Romania, Pasca took a non-traditional path, pursuing a career in basic research rather than immediately continuing his training as a clinician.

“I knew I wanted to do research in autism,” says Pasca, who had worked with patients during his clinical training in Romania and was frustrated by how little physicians could do for them.

While still a medical student, Pasca learned of Ricardo Dolmetsch, PhD, associate professor of neurobiology at the Stanford School of Medicine, who was beginning a new approach to autism research, and knew immediately that Stanford was where he wanted to work.

“But as a medical doctor with no research training, he wasn’t particularly qualified,” recalls Dolmetsch, now Pasca’s advisor. Dolmetch was convinced to give Pasca a try by a Stanford colleague who met him while teaching in Romania.

Dolmetsch had one stipulation – Pasca had to secure funding to support himself, a task that, due to inherent risk of the project, took nearly two years. His first one-year grant got him in the door at the Dolmetsch Lab. Subsequent funding from the Tashia and John Morgridge Endowed Fellowship in Pediatric Translational Medicine has allowed him to expand his work at Stanford.

“Although Sergiu had little formal training in basic research, he quickly became very good,” Dolmetsch notes. “In just a few years he has developed into an amazing postdoctoral fellow – one of the best I’ve ever had. His work has helped our lab become the first group to generate neurons from patients with autism.”

“We’re developing a new tool to move in the direction of rational drug development,” says Pasca. “This has never really been done for psychiatric diseases before. I really want to find new therapies and get them back to the patient. This is what draws me in every day.”