Beginning with entomological treasure hunts with his father as a young child to working with pig models at the University of Georgia’s Regenerative Bioscience Center, Associate Professor Franklin West (PhD — Animal and Dairy Science, ’08) has led a science-filled life.
Now a global expert in stem cell biology with the Department of Animal and Dairy Science within UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, West has racked up an impressive list of accomplishments at the university, including producing the first live chimeric pigs from porcine-induced pluripotent stem cells, developing novel stem-cell-to-germ-cell culture systems, and creating a first-of-its-kind U.S. swine stroke model that has major implications on the treatment of human stroke patients.
While his list of accomplishments in the scientific research community is lengthy, it does not stop there. West is a well-respected professor among his colleagues and students alike. Every year he teaches an undergraduate class that introduces students to regenerative medicine, and he mentors countless pre-med and pre-vet undergraduate students in meaningful research projects. West also helped catalyze the creation of the RBC Undergraduate Fellows Program, which takes advantage of faculty specialties in animal and dairy sciences, biochemistry, engineering and veterinary medicine to empower students with multidisciplinary research opportunities.
West’s own experiences demonstrate the importance that mentors have played in his life, from his parents and family members through his professional colleagues.
The child of military parents — his father, Franklin West Jr., served as a supply officer in the Air Force, and his mother, Sandra West, served in the Air Force before teaching computer science and history — West grew up traveling around the world, living with his parents and younger brother, Joshua, in locales including Italy and Japan before settling in Augusta, Georgia, during his middle school years.
“Growing up, I was very interested in being a scientist,” said West, who recalls building his first bug-collecting net with his father at age four. “He was into entomology and we had large cases that contained displays of butterflies on the walls at home. It was something we did together on weekends.”
The family also had a small hobby farm populated with a variety of pets from miniature goats to llamas and horses.
“I decided I wanted to be a veterinarian, so I worked in two veterinary clinics on a regular basis during high school,” said West, who attended A. R. Johnson Health Science and Engineering Magnet School in Augusta. “For two periods a day I would leave the school to go shadow vets and other members of the medical field, including a thoracic surgeon, a radiologist and a physical therapist. It really gave me the chance to see what else was out there in science fields.”
Recruited to Morehouse College as a David and Lucile Packard Foundation Research Fellow, West studied biology and worked closely with ecologist Lawrence Blumer studying mate choice in bean beetles and predatory wasps. He also participated in a number of research fellowships, including a summer studying the impact of intertidal snails on the local ecology with biologist Jan Factor at Cornell University’s Shoals Marine Laboratory on Appledore Island, Maine, and another studying the effects of relational and environmental stress on yellow baboons in Kenya’s Nairobi National Park with renowned ecologist and evolutionary biologist Jeanne Altmann of Princeton University.
Before graduating magna cum laude from Morehouse, West was poised to enter the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Florida when he made a very important decision.
“I am actually allergic to cats, dogs, birds and other animals and it was getting worse and not better. I had to make the switch because of that,” he said wryly. “Research allowed me to have the best of both worlds.”
After visiting UGA on a tour led by fungal geneticist Michelle Momany, professor and associate dean in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, West’s interests in research and conservation merged when he discovered the work being done by Steve Stice, professor and director of UGA’s Regenerative Bioscience Center, on cloning endangered animal species.
West joined Stice’s lab as a doctoral candidate and has continued to collaborate with him as a faculty member with his own lab.
Over time, West has transitioned his research to focus on neural stem cells and stem cell products for use in potential therapies for traumatic brain injury (TBI) and stroke.
“There is no FDA-approved treatment for traumatic brain injury. It is quite insidious and difficult to treat,” said West, adding that TBI occurs on a spectrum, from traumatic injuries suffered by soldiers in war zones to athletes suffering repetitive concussion to thousands of children each year who suffer falls and other head injuries.
West is heavily involved in studying how stem cells effect recovery from TBI. Using pig models, neural stem cells are transplanted into the brains of pigs in which strokes or TBI have been induced. By treating TBI in pig models, West is seeking to determine how the treatment changes the reorganization of the brain.
“We are developing technology to detect changes in brain function. When you have TBI, different networks in the brain have to pick up the work of that damaged network, your brain is naturally going to reorganize. If we can improve that reorganization with treatment, that can translate to improvement in recovery,” he said.