News Release

$7.9M awarded to UCI stem cell scientists

CIRM comprehensive research grants will fund three UCI projects

Grant and Award Announcement

University of California - Irvine

UC Irvine scientists today were awarded $7.9 million in the second round of stem cell research funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

Projects headed by Doug Wallace, Hans Keirstead and Peter Donovan were selected by the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), the governing board of CIRM, for comprehensive research grants. These projects focus on mitochondria, the creation of cells to treat spinal cord injuries, and the genetic manipulation of human embryonic stem cells.

"We are delighted and honored that CIRM recognizes the strength of stem cell research at UCI," said Donovan, co-director of UCI's Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. "This support furthers our ability to conduct research that is critical to the development of future stem cell therapies."

The ICOC approved $74.6 million over four years for 29 ongoing studies on human embryonic stem cells by scientists with a record of accomplishment in the field. The grant recipients were selected from 70 applications from researchers at 23 institutions who sought more than $175 million in CIRM funding. Grant funding is subject to review and revision by CIRM.

Wallace, the Donald Bren Professor of Biological Sciences and Molecular Medicine, was awarded $2.5 million to investigate the importance of mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA in the preparation of human embryonic stem cells for use in regenerative medicine. Mitochondria are found in human cells and generate most of our energy. They contain their own DNA, which contains key blueprints for maintaining these cellular power plants. Procedures that prepare therapeutic cells for use in research can result in mixing DNA from different people within the same cell. This can cause degenerative diseases, premature aging and cancer. Wallace's project aims to determine the nature of compatible and incompatible mitochondrial DNA and the consequences of their mixing. He also hopes to develop procedures to block adverse mixing and create treatments to preserve mitochondrial function.

Keirstead, associate professor of anatomy and neurobiology and co-director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, was awarded $2.4 million to create a renewable source of spinal cord tissue cells with hopes of restoring upper limb function impaired by acute and chronic spinal cord injury. Keirstead's laboratory was the first in the world to develop a method to restrict human embryonic stem cells so they generate large amounts of only one cell type in high purity. That type of cell, an oligodendrocyte, insulates connections in the spinal cord, allowing them to conduct electricity.

Donovan, professor of biological chemistry and of developmental and cell biology, was awarded $2.5 million to genetically manipulate human embryonic stem cells to study their growth. His study could speed up efforts to make specialized cell types both for cell-based therapies and to develop drugs to treat diseases. Because human embryonic stem cells are derived from early embryos, his studies also could have a major impact on the understanding of early embryo growth and factors that cause infertility.

Also today, the ICOC awarded Frank LaFerla, professor of neurobiology and behavior, a two-year $492,750 Scientific Excellence through Exploration and Development (SEED) grant. LaFerla plans to use human embryonic stem cells to create a cell-culture model of Alzheimer's disease that mirrors the complex array of human proteins involved in this devastating condition. He then plans to use these cells to perform a screen of more than 7,300 genes to identify promising new drug targets that may slow the progression of Alzheimer's disease.

Last month, the ICOC awarded UCI scientists $3.5 million in SEED grants for six projects intended to bring new ideas and new investigators to the field of human embryonic stem cell research. Those projects had focuses ranging from cancer to muscular dystrophy.

UCI is at the forefront of stem cell research. It is home to the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, which promotes basic and clinical research training in the field of stem cell biology. More than 60 UCI scientists use stem cells in their current or planned studies. These scientists study spinal cord injuries, brain injuries and central nervous system diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and Huntington's.

UCI is raising money for a new building that would house its stem cell researchers, the core laboratory, training facilities and research space. It would accommodate evolving and expanding areas of stem cell study, serving as a university and regional hub for human embryonic stem cell research. UCI plans to apply to CIRM for a facilities grant to build the structure.


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