Former Lab Members:

Alis Balayan

Alis Balayan
Research Assistant

I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Biochemistry from UCLA in June 2018. During my undergraduate education, I became interested in translational research and joined Dr. Deng’s Cornea lab. As an undergraduate researcher in the Deng lab, I worked closely with Aurélie Dos Santos, a postdoctoral scholar, on the project of generating mesenchymal stem cell-based therapies for corneal repair. Upon graduating from UCLA, I joined the Deng lab as a full-time research technician. I will be starting UC San Diego Medical Scientist Training Program in July, 2020.

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Aurelie Dos Santos, PhD

Aurelie Dos Santos, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

I received my bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology from the University of Brest, France. Later on, I graduated with a PhD in Experimental Medicine at the University of Tübingen, Germany, under the mentorship of Prof. Hubert Löwenheim. My PhD work was focused on hair cell regeneration in the mammalian auditory sensory epithelium, the organ of Corti, using different sources of stem cells. My current work in Sophie Deng’s lab is focused on regenerative and translational medicine for the treatment of corneal stromal injuries using adult progenitor / stem cells and their secretome.

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Rebecca Gentry
Laboratory Assistant

I received my B.S. in Microbiology in 2016. During my undergrad I worked in a cancer research lab and a microbial genomics lab studying the bacterial diversity found in permafrost samples. In Dr. Deng’s lab my primary focus is on the limbal stem cell deficiency project. Completing all the immunohistochemistry, helping with cell collection, and compiling and analyzing data.

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Linying Huang, MD

Linying Huang, MD
International visiting scholar

I received my M.D. in ophthalmology at Peking University (China) in 2010. After finishing my residency and fellow training, I became a cornea doctor in the Eye Center of Renmin Hospital of Wuhan University in China. My specialty is corneal diseases and I am a successful cornea transplantation surgeon. I have been interested in studying limbal stem cell deficiency (LSCD), and I wanted to do further research in this field. Thus, I joined Dr. Deng’s group in 2019 as an assistant scientist. My work is focused on LSCs culturing and Wnt signal pathway. I also take part in the LSCD clinical project, such as doing in vivo confocal microscopy (IVCM), anterior segment optical coherence tomography (AS-OCT) and slit lamp photos for LSCD patients.

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Ning Lyu, MD

Ning Lyu, MD
Graduate student

I received my M.D. in 2015 at School of Ophthalmology & Optometry, Wenzhou Medical University, Wenzhou, China. After finishing my residency, I started studying for Ph.D. My research direction is translational application of stem cells and extracellular vesicles. I joined Dr. Deng’s group in 2019. My current work is focused on corneal stromal stem cells and their extracellular vesicles aiming to develop new effective therapy for corneal scar and neovascularization.

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Hua Mei
Assistant Project Scientist

I worked on the in vitro expansion of limbal stem/progenitor cells in Sophie’s labaoratory. On the aspect of fundamental science, we looked for potential LSC markers by preferential expression of genes at basal limbal epithelium and have discovered that Wnt signaling plays an important role in LSCs and identified Frizzled 7 as a putative LSC marker, which may serve as a potential marker in the diagnosis and the quality control of expanded LSCs. The expansion of LSCs were further optimized by adding small molecules of Wnt signaling in culture medium and by over-expressing Wnt ligands in the feeder cells. On the aspect of pre-clinical trials, the mouse-derived feeder cells, which cause the concern on potential xenobiotic contamination, were replaced with human-derived feeder cells. In addition, the process and storage of amniotic membrane, which serves as the extracellular matrix during culture and as a carrier during transplantation, has been standardized and validated by laboratory parameters and on animal models. Our work benefits the fundamental understanding of LSCs and contributes to the clinical application of LSC therapy.

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JoAnn Roberts, PhD

JoAnn Roberts, PhD
Postdoctoral Researcher

Born on the island of Bermuda, I was raised by Jamaican parents, with whom I immigrated to the United States at the age of 9. I earned my B.A. in Biological Chemistry from the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College and M.S. in Biomedical Science from Florida Atlantic University. I continued my education at the Medical University of South Carolina, where I completed my Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology (Research emphasis on host-pathogen interactions in the oral cavity). I have now moved slightly north of the mouth to focus on research in the eye. Specifically, my project focuses on improving and enriching the ex vivo cultivation of limbal stem cells using small molecules targeting the Wnt pathway. In my spare time I am a singer-songwriter and worship leader at my church.

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Jonathan Rodriguez, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher

I received my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Genetics, Cell Biology and Pathology at the University Claude Bernard in Lyon, France. During these years, I worked on cancer cells and the involvement of stress proteins in pancreatic cancer progression. I also worked on the metabolic reprogramming in Hepatitis B infected cells. My PhD, under the supervision of Prof. Ali Mojallal and Dr. Odile Damour, was focused on the use of mesenchymal stem cells from fat to accelerate skin wound healing, in a translational medicine point of view. Therefore, I built up my knowledge regarding how to reach the clinics from the bench, facing the regulatory authorities and the inherent hurdles. At the Stein Eye Institute in Dr. Sophie Deng’s lab, we are working on a process of xeno-free culture of limbal stem cells from a small limbal biopsy. Personally, my postdoctoral studies are focused on the development of quality controls to qualify our cell-based therapeutic product. To do so, I am giving interests in miRNA excreted by the cells during their growth, the cell phenotyping using multi-parametric flow cytometry in addition to their metabolic behavior. Besides this, I love playing golf, cooking and tasting/sharing wine with friends.

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Jenny Sunga

Jennifer Sunga
Lab Assistant

I obtained my bachelor’s degree in Biology from VCU in December 2019. During my undergraduate education, my interest in translational research began at the VCU Pathology department. As an undergraduate in the Radhakrishnan lab, I worked closely with Amy Northrup, a PhD candidate at the time, to develop my laboratory skills. In March 2020, I joined the Deng lab to assist with all ongoing projects.

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Kaushali Thakore-Shah, Ph.D.
Postdoctoral Researcher

The tremendous potential of stem cells to treat human disease enticed me to pursue a Ph.D. with Dr. April Pyle at UCLA, where I investigated pluripotency signaling networks in human embryonic stem cells. When a young nephew was diagnosed with a degenerative ocular disease, I was compelled to contemplate the daily challenges faced by the visually impaired. That insight led me to seek a postdoctoral position in a vision science laboratory. My research in the Deng lab involves developing a protocol for generating corneal endothelial cells from pluripotent stem cells, so as to help restore vision to individuals with corneal endothelial dysfunction. When I am not in lab, I love hanging out with my dog, exploring Los Angeles with friends, and learning mindfulness meditation.

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Elfren Baclagon
Contract and Grants analyst, JSEI.

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Stephanie Pham
Keck School of Medicine of USC, Class of 2023.

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Former Undergraduate students:  

Amanda Andreas - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2021

Derek Chang

Demi Chen -UC Berkeley School of Optometry, Class of 2022

Maximilian Halabi - UC Irvine School of Medicine, Class of 2024

David Ho - David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, Class of 2023

Jakia Islam - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2020

David Ju - UC Irvine School of Medicine, Class of 2020

Grace Lee - Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University

Johnson Thai - Molecular and Cellular Developmental Biology, UCLA, Class of 2020

Lauren Ton - UCSF School of Medicine, Class of 2023

Matthew Tsai - Harvard School of Dental Medicine, Class of 2020

Lily Vartanyan - Emergency Medicine at Keck School of Medicine of USC, Class of 2022 

Katherine Zhuo - Human Biology and Society, UCLA, Class of 2020


Former Visiting Medical students: 

Serena Gee - David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, Class of 2022

John Ngo - Western University of Health Sciences College of Osteopathic Medicine, Class of 2020

Nick Uhm - Pediatric Residency at David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, Class of 2021