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Assistant Professor
UNC-Chapel Hill

Education and Training

University of Wisconsin-Madison, Bacteriology, BS
University of Wisconsin-Madison, Biochemistry, PhD
Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard University, Postdoctoral
University of Southern California, Postdoctoral

Areas of Interest

Statistics suggest that 1 in 9 Americans will be affected by kidney disease. Effective treatments remain limited, and progression to kidney failure leaves only two options: dialysis and transplant. Common
to t
he majority of kidney disease cases, irrespective of cause, is the compromise of nephron function. Nephrons are the workhorses of the kidney and their number is set prior to birth; no new nephrons are ever formed. Therefore, any compromise in the number of functional nephrons-whether due to acute injury, genetic mutations, premature birth, developmental insufficiencies, or aging-increases the susceptibility to kidney disease. A thorough understanding of how the nephron and its specialized cell types form, function, and respond to disease will be essential for developing novel therapeutics and employing regenerative strategies.

The O’Brien lab studies the regulatory networks required to maintain nephron progenitors-from signals to epigenetic and transcriptional regulation-with the goal of understanding how their misregulation alters kidney development and final nephron numbers. Additionally, we are interested in how these networks contribute to the malignant transformation of nephron progenitors into Wilms’ tumor and how developmental networks are utilized/altered in these tumor cells. The lab also focuses on podocytes, a highly specialized cell type of the nephron filter. These cells have a unique and elaborate architecture with interdigitating foot processes that help form the filtration barrier of the kidney. We are interested in identifying and comparing the cellular and regulatory networks required for podocyte development versus maintenance, and how they networks are altered during kidney disease and aging. We utilize a combination of developmental and cell biology, biochemistry, modern genetic tools, high-throughput sequencing, and imaging in our research.

Awards and Honors

2016 Maren Scholar, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
2015 Broad Postdoctoral Fellowship, University of Southern California
2013 Travel Award for Outstanding Abstract, International Workshop on Developmental Nephrology
2010 Ruth L. Kirschstein National Research Service Award Postdoctoral Fellowship, NIH/NIDDK
2011 Completed ‘Gene Regulatory Networks’ Course, Marine Biological Laboratories
2009 Best Poster, North-East Society for Developmental Biology
2006 Mary Shine Peterson Graduate Fellowship, University of Wisconsin-Madison

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Cell Biology and Physiology Curriculum
UNC Kidney Center


Lori O'Brien