A commitment to mentoring

Stanford University’s Dr Jill Helms is paying her own achievements forward in all that she does

With her fascination with the living sciences, boundless curiosity, tireless patient advocacy, and a patient-centered approach to research, it’s not surprising that Stanford University’s Jill Helms, DDS, PhD, is a rock star in the world of plastic and reconstructive surgery.

Helms is a professor of plastic and reconstructive surgery at Stanford University—one of the world’s leading teaching and research institutions—and leads the department’s regeneration medicine research program. She will be among the stars of FACE AHEAD 2020, a two-day, global craniomaxillofacial (CMF) surgery summit, March 26–28, 2020, in Barcelona, Spain.

“Although I’m now a professor at one of the leading universities in the world and co-founder of a venture start-up, I had no such vision as a young person. My beginnings were inauspicious. I do recall that my father admonished me to have a career in order to support myself,” Helms said with a gentle chuckle, recalling her Minnesota (US) upbringing. “In essence, I was fascinated by the living sciences, biology in particular. I was terribly—maybe irritatingly—curious as a child and that is still a driving force in the research we do.”

Today, Helms is a leading scientist in the fields of stem cell biology and longevity. In parallel with her teaching duties, she heads up a Stanford research group focused on translating basic scientific discovers into real-world therapies in orthopedic, dental, and dermatology/plastic surgery, is an in-demand consultant for patients with anomalous CMF conditions, and is a valued member of an array of CMF-related boards, advisory committees and organizations, including the AO CMF Research & Development Commission.

“If we can understand stem cell biology and tissue regeneration well enough, we should be able to develop therapies that directly help our patients.”

Paying it forward

Helms is quick to point out that her achievements are the direct result of what she calls committed mentoring—a debt that she pays back by paying it forward.

“The only way you pay back a mentor is by paying it forward,” she said, emphasizing that patients are the ultimate beneficiaries. “Patients are at the center of everything we do and I consider it an honor to be involved in any aspect of there care. They are the sun and we are the planets circling around that sun.”

Early in her career, and in relation to her interest in the basis of birth defects, Helms’ research focus was on how embryos developed at a molecular level. That research led to the next obvious question: How do tissues develop. And that, in turn, led to her current focus on tissue repair and regeneration.

“If we can understand stem cell biology and tissue regeneration well enough, we should be able to develop therapies that directly help our patients,” Helms said.

Not just ‘pie in the sky’

And that help may well be in the not-too-distant future: recently, Helms served as chief scientific officer of a venture-backed biopharmaceutical company that licensed the intellectual property developed in her Stanford lab research. Clinical trials are slated to begin in early 2020, focusing on the use of the stem cell growth factor WNT3A. WNT3A plays a role in the maintenance of bone growth and repair but appears to decline with age, and their technology centers around a proprietary, localized therapy involving WNT3A treatment to locally accelerate bone healing.

“There are CMF indications as well as orthopedic indications,” Helms said. “Study sites are being selected now.”

Helms is quick to point out that “we’re not talking about pie in the sky” when it comes to therapies that could help people “live healthfully for as long as possible.”

“If we can mitigate damage in stem cells, people can live longer, healthier lives. We’re asking: At what points in the cellular aging process can we impact these stem cells to maintain tissues and organs and stave off the age-related decline we typically see,” she said. And that can have an enormously positive impact on health care in a time when the global population is aging—and accounting for the vast majority of health care spending.

Helms predicts that with three to five years, researchers will find safe and effective ways to accelerate healing—and she does not consider that a particularly bold prediction.

“The trickle-down effect of that is that patients will have fewer surgeries and greater success in the surgeries that they undergo,” she explained.

These strides forward go to the core of Helms’ research and the sense of excitement—and urgency—she will bring to FACE AHEAD 2020 participants.

“I look at these young, emerging clinicians and researchers and I think, ‘Thank goodness we have such capable individuals who will be taking over,’” she said. “I’m delighted to have a part in helping them on their road to becoming leaders.”

Helms said FACE AHEAD 2020 represents a unique opportunity for young surgeons to “step back, see the big picture.”

“It’s important to look beyond our own departments and practice walls to see the horizon and what lies ahead,” she said. “FACE AHEAD 2020 is that opportunity.”

Jill Helms, DDS, PhD
Professor of Surgery
Division of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, Stanford School of Medicine, Stanford University
Chief Scientific Officer, Ankasa Regenerative Therapeutics, Inc.

Dr Jill Helms is a leading scientist in the fields of stem cell biology and longevity. Her group focuses their efforts on translating basic science discoveries into therapies in the orthopedic, dental, and dermatology/plastic surgery space.

Trained at Baylor College of Medicine, Helms attained tenure at the University of California, San Francisco, prior to joining Stanford in 2004. She has published over 200 primary research articles, numerous book chapters, reviews, and opinion papers. Most recently, she was awarded the Distinguished Scientist for Craniofacial Biology Research prize and was the recipient of the International Association of Dental Research’s Distinguished Scientist Isaac Schour Memorial Award in recognition of her contributions to field of dentistry.