Faculty Research Labs

Koehler Lab

The Koehler Lab, led by Karl Koehler, PhD, is making significant advances in regenerative medicine by understanding how to build complex tissues of the head and neck in a culture dish using stem cells. While stem cells can become many different types of cells, researchers determined how to specifically differentiate stem cells into two major cell populations important for craniofacial development: the ectoderm and the neural crest.

The lab discovered that under controlled culture conditions, stem cells self-organize into a diverse array of cranial cell types and organs such as inner ear sensory organs, cranial neurons, cartilage, skin, and fat. The goal of this work is to clearly define the mechanisms underlying this tissue development process in order to ultimately provide a useful tool for studying tissue development, modeling diseases, and improving regenerative therapies.

The Koehler Lab has two primary areas of focus: facial skin reconstruction and auditory neuron regeneration.

Facial Skin Reconstruction

The Koehler Lab achieved a significant breakthrough in facial skin reconstruction research. In a scientific first, they generated hairy mouse skin in a culture dish using stem cells. Modern approaches to skin grafting typically produce skin without hair follicles, sweat glands, or pigmentation cells—components necessary for skin function, thermoregulation, touch sensation, and appearance. For the past forty years, investigators have attempted to recreate skin cells that possess these complex functions. This exciting use of stem cells to create hair-growing skin in a dish moves reconstruction science further in that direction. Given the success of this stem cell differentiation model, investigators in the Koehler Lab are applying for NIH funding in order to create a road map to regenerate complex human skin and hair.

Auditory Neuron Regeneration

Hearing loss is often caused by the degeneration of spiral ganglion neurons in the inner ear that relay auditory signals to the brain. The Koehler Lab investigates how to instruct human stem cells to generate into inner ear neurons using a new culture system that mimics inner ear development. Pluripotent stem cells (PSCs) serve as a promising tool to model inner ear development and produce replacement sensory cells for cellular therapy.

The Koehler Lab recently described a method for deriving inner ear organoids from mouse PSCs in a 3D stem cell culture system. Mimicking normal development, the organoids started as otic vesicles and progressively formed neurons and sensory epithelia containing hair cells. Additional research builds onto preliminary studies of a human organoid culture system to investigate the mechanisms and transcriptional regulators governing auditory circuit formation.

Primary Investigator

Karl R. Koehler, PhD

Karl R. Koehler, PhD

Adjunct Assistant Professor of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery