Growing up in Aiud, Romania, in a family of modest means, Pasca always gravitated toward chemistry. He won a prize in the national chemistry Olympiad during his last year of high school, earning him a scholarship toward any Romanian university.
He enrolled in medical school in Cluj-Napoca, and — despite limited resources in the biochemistry program — his research there uncovered links between autistic children and certain metabolic alterations, helping shed light on the biochemical underpinnings of the condition.
Pasca then secured a postdoctoral position in neuroscience at Stanford. There, he explored the molecular underpinnings of Timothy syndrome, a rare form of autism that can be accompanied by heart defects, low blood sugar, and intellectual disability — and helped shed light on abnormalities of Timothy syndrome patients on the cellular level. He earned a faculty position at Stanford, where he worked on developing models for brain disease, using stem cells to generate self-organizing 3D structures dubbed “organoids” that resemble human brain tissue.
“There are many aspects of brain function that 2D cultures do not capture, and I felt early on that these 3D cultures would prove transformative,” says Pasca. The effort led to a repository of patient-derived brain cultures that are among the most realistic mockups of brain development available to researchers today.
Later, Pasca created an even more sophisticated model of the human brain: one that allows more precise investigation into cross-talk between brain regions. These findings have led to greater insight into human brain development and disorders in which communication between different brain regions goes awry — like uncovering defects in the migration of so-called interneurons in Timothy syndrome patients’ brains.
“With these models, we can finally get access to what we thought was inaccessible brain biology,” Pasca says.
Awards and Accomplishments
- Visionaries in Science and Medicine, New York Times (2018)
- NYSCF Robertson Stem Cell Investigator, New York Stem Cell Foundation (2017)
- Jordi Folch-Pi Award for Neurochemistry, American Society for Neurochemistry (2017)
- NARSAD Independent Investigator Award, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (2017)
- NIMH Director’s BRAINS Award, National Institute of Mental Health (2015–2020)
- Baxter Faculty Scholar Award, Baxter Foundation (2015)
- MQ Fellow Award for Transforming Mental Health, MQ Foundation, London (2014–2017)
- Alumni Excellence Research Award, Medicalis (2013)
- Grand Prize Best Romanian Student Abroad, LRSA (2013)
- NARSAD Young Investigator Award, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation (2013)
- Best Postdoctoral Research Award, Stanford University (2012)
- Sammy Kuo Award, Best Postdoctoral Publication in Neuroscience at Stanford University (2012)
- Tashia & John Morgridge Endowed Fellow, Child Health Research Institute (CHRI) (2010–2012)
- IBRO Outstanding Research Fellow, International Research Organization (IBRO) (2009–2010)
- Medical Student of the Year, VIP Foundation (2006)