​​​​​​​​ Stephanie Protze  
Dr. Stephanie Protze, PhD

Scientist, McEwen Stem Cell Institute
Assistant Professor, Department of Molecular Genetics, University of Toronto

Dr. Protze joined the McEwen Stem Cell Institute in 2018 where she is currently a Principal Investigator. Her research program is focused on human heart development and disease with the overarching goal to develop new therapies to treat cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Stephanie Protze obtained her Bachelor of Science degree in 2007 in the Molecular Biotechnology program at Dresden University of Technology (Germany). She joined the International Max Planck Research School in Dresden for her PhD studies in the laboratory of Drs. Ursula Ravens and Elly Tanaka during which time she focused on transcription factor-based direct reprogramming of fibroblasts to cardiomyocytes and their electrophysiological characterization. Dr. Protze graduated with a PhD in Cell Biology and Biomedicine from the University of Dresden in 2012 with summa cum laude. For her Post-Doctoral Fellowship, Dr. Protze trained in the laboratory of Dr. Gordon Keller at the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University Health Network in Toronto (Canada) where she specialized in human heart development and the generation of biological pacemakers from human pluripotent stem cells. These biological pacemakers have the potential to provide improved treatment over current electronic pacemaker devices in the future.

Through her research, Dr. Protze established a method for generating pacemaker cells from pluripotent stem cells. In an international collaboration with scientists from Technion, Israel, Dr. Protze provided first proof of principle that these pacemaker cells can function as biological pacemaker, the first step in developing a cell therapy approach to treat patients. Dr. Protze also spearheaded a project on the development of human atrial and ventricular cardiomyocytes from pluripotent stem cells and demonstrated for the first time that these two lineages are pre-specified by mesoderm patterning during gastrulation. In her work with the McEwen Stem Cell Institute, Dr. Protze is applying the pluripotent stem cell model system to identify the signals that govern atrioventricular node pacemaker lineage commitment with the ultimate goal to decipher a complete lineage tree of the cardiac conduction system. She is also pursuing translational research by applying the hPSC-derived cardiomyocyte subtypes for disease modeling and drug development and by further exploring the application of hPSC-derived pacemaker cells as biological pacemakers in pre-clinical animal models.

A complete list of Dr. Protze's publications can be found on UHN Research

Generation of mature compact ventricular cardiomyocytes from human pluripotent stem cells.
Nat Commun. 2021 May 26; 12(1):3155.
Funakoshi S, Fernandes I, Mastikhina O, Wilkinson D, Tran T, Dhahri W, Mazine A, Yang D, Burnett B, Lee J, Protze S, Bader GD, Nunes SS, Laflamme M, Keller G.

Genome-wide analysis identifies an essential human TBX3 pacemaker enhancer.
Circ Res. 2020 Dec4;127(12):1522-1535 Impact Factor 14.467.
van Eif WW V, Protze S, Bosada FM, Yuan X, Sinha T, van Duijvenboden K, Ernault AC, Mohan RA, Wakker V, de Gier-de Vries C, Hooijkaas IB, Wison MD, Verkerk AO, Bakkers J, Boukens BJ, Black BL, Scott IC, Christoffels VM.

Human pluripotent stem cell-derived cardiovascular cells: from developmental biology to therapeutic applications.
Cell Stem Cell. 2019 Sep 5;25(3):311-32.
Protze S, Lee JH, Keller G.

Human Pluripotent Stem Cell-Derived Atrial and Ventricular Cardiomyocytes Develop from Distinct Mesoderm Populations
Cell Stem Cell. 2017 Aug 03;21(2):179-194.e4
Lee JH, Protze SI, Laksman Z, Backx PH, Keller GM

Sinoatrial node cardiomyocytes derived from human pluripotent cells function as a biological pacemaker
Nat Biotechnol. 2017 Jan;35(1):56-68
Protze SI, Liu J, Nussinovitch U, Ohana L, Backx PH, Gepstein L, Keller GM

Principal Investigator: Dr. Stephanie Protze

Administrative Assistant: Jonelle Martineau

Lab Manager: Maggie Kwan

Graduate Students

  • Michelle Lohbihler, PhD Student
  • Amos Lim, PhD Student
  • Matthew Chang, PhD Student
  • Brandon Murareanu, MSc Student

Q: For the past five years, you have focused your research on trying to create a specific cell in the heart called the pacemaker cell. The idea is that these cells could help a heart beat regularly and naturally on its own. Recently, your team was successful in creating functional pacemaker cells from stem cells in just 21 days. How did you do it?

A: It was tricky. You have to determine the right signalling molecules at the right concentration, at the right time, to stimulate the stem cells. We did it by replicating nature's way of making the pacemaker cells. Human trials are still some years away, but with our community support and the continued innovation of our team, we will get there.

Q: What impact does this breakthrough stand to have in the long term?

A: Our team is hoping to eventually develop a biological pacemaker to transplant into patients who need an electronic one. Since more than 18,000 electronic pacemakers are implanted every year into Canadian patients, this alternative therapy stands to change tens of thousands of lives. If we're successful, the biological pacemaker holds the promise of a lifelong cure. And it would be our committed donors, along with the world-class researchers who have devoted their careers to this work, who made that possible.

Q: You're a Principal Investigator at the newly established McEwen Institute. Why was the Institute created?

A: Over the last 15 years, incredible research has been done through the McEwen Centre for Regenerative Medicine. Due to this success, UHN transitioned the efforts at McEwen Centre on a broad range of research areas to the McEwen Institute, focusing primarily on translating stem cell research to patient care in four key areas including heart, liver, blood and diabetes. The naming of the Institute recognizes the longstanding generosity of Rob and Cheryl McEwen who, since 2003, have spearheaded support for regenerative medicine at UHN. And thanks to their support, and the support of donors like the McEwens, the Institute will develop even more effective and cutting-edge treatments for heart disease, cancers of the blood like leukemia, type 1 diabetes and liver diseases using regenerative medicine with the full weight of UHN behind it.

Learn more about Dr. Stephanie Protze's work on UHN's Behind the Breakthrough podcast.

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