Erin L. Weber, MD, PhD, an Assistant Professor in Plastic Surgery, has recently joined the Department of Surgery Faculty at Indiana University School of Medicine. Weber attended Rice University and graduated Magna Cum Laude in 2000 with a degree in Biochemistry. She then completed a combined MD-PhD program at the University of Southern California, graduating in 2009. Her graduate thesis focused on altering the molecular design of viral vectors to reduce cancer risk as a side effect of gene therapy treatment. She then completed an internship year in general surgery at Harbor-UCLA, followed by a residency in Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery at the University of Southern California. She took a break during residency for three years to complete a postdoctoral research fellowship, investigating human hair follicle development and ways to enhance hair regeneration to treat hair loss. Finally, she completed an orthoplastic fellowship in hand surgery at the University of Pennsylvania in 2020. Weber specializes in hand surgery and her clinical interests include hand and upper extremity reconstruction and nerve injury, including brachial plexus. As a surgeon-scientist, she is continuing her research endeavors at the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering. Her interests include hair follicle regeneration and nerve regeneration.
We sat down with Doctor Weber to talk about her research and future aspirations while here at the IU School of Medicine
How did you come into the surgeon/scientist role and eventually your position here at the IU School of Medicine?
Growing up, my favorite subject was science and, during high school, I worked in a research laboratory as my summer job. I always envisioned a career in science but my interest in medicine and surgery would come later. In college, I majored in biochemistry and had the opportunity to take classes at the nearby medical center, which piqued my interest in becoming a doctor. I very much enjoyed basic science research and the creative thinking which goes into it. When faced with deciding between medicine and research, I simply couldn’t and chose to do both, in a combined MD/PhD program.
Like the combined MD/PhD program, I also took a break during residency to complete a postdoctoral fellowship. I studied hair follicle development and regeneration, with the goal of either recreating the human stem cell that makes the hair follicle or an entire human hair follicle in the lab for transplantation. And, by that point, I'd made a habit of doing research and surgery together.
What attracted me to the IU School of Medicine was the combined opportunity to practice hand surgery as a plastic surgeon and to work with the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering. The surgeons and researchers here are both incredibly supportive of each other and simultaneously well-supported in their endeavors to excel.
What is the current research that you're working on and what are you hoping to branch out into in the future?
I'm interested in continuing my work with hair follicle regeneration. I've examined the differences between hair follicles stem cells which can grow or regenerate into new hair follicles and those which can’t and have identified several candidate genes which may be responsible for the regenerative difference. Using this information, the next step is to engineer human adult skin cells into stem cell-like cells that can direct the growth of new hair follicles.
A second interest of mine is nerve regeneration. We know that when a nerve is cut, many different types of cells are activated to begin the healing and repair process. But, we also know that those cell types only remain activated for about a month after injury, at which point they slowly dwindle away. The question is, what signals maintain their active state and how can we manipulate those signals to prolong the repair period? If you can prolong that repair period, then you can potentially improve the efficiency and efficacy of nerve regeneration, leading to better outcomes.
How do you think the research partnerships within the IU School of Medicine will benefit the project and drive it toward a successful outcome?
My overarching interest is in regeneration, both for hair follicles and nerve, which aligns well with the focus of the ICRME. I am looking forward to collaborating with members of the ICRME whose research or techniques overlap, even in small ways, with mine. Dr. Gregory Borschel, a hand surgeon with both clinical and research expertise in nerve injury, has also just joined the Division of Plastic Surgery at IU, which is a great opportunity to share and expand on new ideas – many minds are always better than one.
Explain the benefit of this kind of environment, and how you would welcome others who are also interested in this field?
I think the benefit of it is the collaboration that's possible. Anytime you bring in somebody new from the outside, they're bringing in new and different perspectives and will introduce new and different ideas. There is a mutual respect between the researchers and the surgeons, which overlaps and is amplified in those who are interested in both. Surgeons have a very different perspective on disease processes and healing and how things work at the patient level than a lab researcher might have. Similarly, a researcher has a much greater appreciation and knowledge of the molecular interactions that result in the disease process. An environment where medicine and research are so fully supported broadens your capability to really address a problem. You have to bring both sides together to be translated into something that is clinically effective.
What does success look like in the research you're conducting?
I think the ultimate measure, particularly for a clinician, is to have your research directly benefit a patient. If I could reproducibly and consistently regenerate, not just one, but innumerable hair follicles, it would be a great step toward the treatment of alopecia. Of course, there are many important steps to getting there, such as obtaining an NIH grant, publishing key papers, and discovering critical components along the way that are crucial for the end goal.
With this being your first faculty type position, how do you feel about the education aspect and working with students?
I am looking forward to it. I love working with residents and teaching during surgery. I'd much rather have a resident there than work alone. The same goes for research. It’s always more interesting and rewarding to be working jointly with someone, whether it’s a surgery or an experiment. As a resident, I worked with a medical student on a project and it developed into a great relationship. She's now a resident in plastic surgery and it’s been wonderful to see her succeed.