Uncovering new cellular functions with compartmentalized cell biology — with Spark Fund awardee Professor Dori Woods

Aug 22, 2023 | Available Tech, Recognition, Spark Fund, Women in STEM

Dori WoodsEveryone knows that mitochondria are the powerhouse of the cell — but did you know that they also perform many other cellular functions?

In fact, mitochondria have many diverse functions in the cell. They can also shift their function to meet changing cellular needs and environments, helping to maintain homeostasis. Mitochondria perform their functions by staying in constant, directed communication with the nucleus about the metabolic status and activity in the cell. These communications can tell us a lot of valuable information about the cell state.

By breaking down a cell into its various components, such as the mitochondria, and then studying them in the context of cellular function and fate, we can learn how these components respond to normal and disease states. We can then use these studies to create a mapped landscape of cellular function. These findings will have a lot of potential predictive and diagnostic value.

Northeastern Professor Dori Woods, Ph.D., and her team at The Woods Laboratory have been studying the functions of mitochondria and have developed a computational platform to further their research in greater detail. This work has earned them selection as one of the Spring 2023 Spark Fund awardees.

Studying the role of mitochondria in the cell

The Woods Laboratory is studying the role of mitochondria in normal and disease states, with a focus on how mitochondria are specifically tailored to a cell’s functional or dysfunctional requirements. The team aims to fully harness the therapeutic potential of mitochondrial subtypes and deeply explore the causal link of mitochondrial function in the maintenance of critical cell fate processes.

“When I established my laboratory at Northeastern almost ten years ago, we were very interested in mitochondrial heterogeneity,” says Woods. “Initially, we worked to establish a nano-sorting platform based on flow cytometry to both purify and examine individual mitochondria to evaluate differences in function at the level of the organelle. Our work has since evolved to assess mitochondrial differences and plasticity in context with cellular function and fate.”

Wood has a longstanding collaboration with Distinguished Professor Jonathan Tilly, Northeastern Chair of Biology. Their labs have worked together with several graduate and undergraduate students over the past ten years to develop and test their strategies to assess mitochondrial dynamics and function.

The Woods Laboratory recently developed and validated a Compartmentalized Cell Biology (CCB) computational pipeline (patent pending) to thoroughly assess cellular component constructs, such as mitochondria, in great detail.

This work originally stems from Woods’ National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development Program (CAREER) Award, which centers on understanding mitochondrial heterogeneity’s role in mitochondrial dynamics.

Commercialization with the Spark Fund

With the help of the CRI, the team has spun the technology out into a start-up, Calafate Biologics. Calafate Biologics is focused on uncovering previously hidden target genes from widely available multi-omics datasets in various biological processes ranging from cancer chemoresistance to neurodegeneration. By anchoring data exploration to a biologically relevant component (organelle of interest), their contemporary integrated pipeline outputs immediately clear and actionable leads, ushering in a new era of next-generation diagnostic and therapeutic products.

The team is allocating the Spark funding to enable recent graduate and co-founder, Fausto Capelluto, Ph.D., to spearhead the development of the CCB-pipeline technology and its various application and to move the team’s commercialization efforts rapidly forward.

“Unlike other granting mechanisms, in which a proposal is submitted and the funding outcomes are not known for months, or sometimes longer, the Spark fund moved rapidly,” says Woods. “We received their feedback and the award outcomes in a matter of weeks. Furthermore, the CRI has always been available to let us know what resources are available for patent applications and making connections with interested parties outside of the University.”

Learn more about the Woods lab’s research and the other Spark Fund Award grantees here.


Written by Elizabeth Creason