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SLU Medical Student Receives NIH F30 Grant to Explore Autoimmune Disease, Infection in the Stomach

by Bridjes O'Neil
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Bridjes O'Neil
Communications Specialist

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ST. LOUIS — Stella Hoft, a M.D./Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine, was recently awarded an F30 Grant through the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases. 

The four-year grant totals $207,008 and will support her research and training to become a productive, independent physician/clinician-scientist. 

Stella Hoft is shown wearing a white lab coat. She smiles at the camera.

Stella Hoft, a M.D./Ph.D. student at Saint Louis University’s School of Medicine, of Richard DiPaolo’s lab. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

Hoft is employing spatial transcriptomics (ST) and single-cell RNA sequencing (scRNAseq) to generate critical insight into how inflammation promotes the development of gastric cancer. This work is supported by a four-year $2.2 million grant led by principal investigator Rich DiPaolo, Ph.D., professor and interim chair in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology. Research efforts could lead to better screening, prevention, and treatments for this deadly disease.

DiPaolo was instrumental in bringing scRNAseq to SLU, and with Hoft’s help in collaboration with the Genomics and Research Microscopy Cores, the DiPaolo lab was the first to use the new spatial transcriptomic technology at the School of Medicine.

ScRNAseq was instrumental in a novel study led by Ryan Teague, Ph.D., professor of molecular microbiology and immunology. The Teague lab studied T cell responses and antibody responses against the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein in vaccinated and unvaccinated patients receiving immunotherapy. 

Hoft compares inflammation in the stomach initiated by autoimmunity or infection to determine how different inflammatory triggers alter epithelial cell progression toward cancer. This work will ultimately improve early screening and diagnostic techniques for patients at risk of developing stomach cancer.

Like Father, Like Daughter

A photo of three people in a lab.

Stella Hoft, left, performs single-cell RNA sequencing as Richard DiPaolo, Ph.D., and Elise Alspach, Ph.D., right, watch on May 24, 2023. Photo by Sarah Conroy.

After graduating from SLU, Hoft worked at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) for two years in the NIH’s post-baccalaureate program, which solidified her decision to apply to M.D./Ph.D. programs. In her first year, she studied Mycobacterium tuberculosis in the lungs of mouse models to gauge how to induce the most protective type of immune cell capable of migrating to the disease site.

In her second year, she determined the impact of intramuscular versus intragastric vaccination routes using the current vaccine for tuberculosis, BCG, in non-human primates.

“I worked at my dad's lab in high school and then worked as a research tech under Dr. Linda Morrison, professor of molecular microbiology and immunology at SLU, doing computational research in college, but this experience was probably my most valuable research in terms of setting me up for Ph.D. grad school,” Hoft said.

Hoft’s dad is Daniel Hoft, M.D., Ph.D., professor of medicine, molecular microbiology and immunology, and director of the SLU’s Center for Vaccine Development, considered one of the nation’s leading vaccine experts.

Like her father, Hoft is interested in conducting clinical research in vaccines, focusing on autoimmune and infectious diseases in pediatric populations.
DiPaolo credits Hoft's experience in multiple labs as allowing her to be highly competitive for the NIH 30 training grant.

About SLU School of Medicine

Established in 1836, Saint Louis University School of Medicine has the distinction of awarding the first medical degree west of the Mississippi River. The school educates physicians and biomedical scientists, conducts medical research, and provides health care on a local, national and international level. Research at the school seeks new cures and treatments in five key areas: infectious disease, liver disease, cancer, heart/lung disease, and aging and brain disorders.