Public Release: 

Bioengineer studying stem cell diets to make better heart cells

University of California - San Diego


IMAGE: Bioengineering professor Christian Metallo uses a mass spectrometer to "check the pulse " of cells and monitor what nutrients they consume. Metallo is one of eight UC San Diego researchers to... view more

Credit: Josh Knoff/UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering

What nutrients are needed for stem cells to grow and function as heart cells? That's the question at the heart of research led by bioengineer Christian Metallo at the University of California, San Diego.

He is one of eight UC San Diego researchers to receive a combined total of $8.165 million in funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in a new round of Basic Biology awards announced Jan. 29. Metallo's share is $1.124 million over three years. The awards were made by CIRM's Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

Heart cells are unique in that they must expend a tremendous amount of energy in order for the heart to function properly, generating the mechanical forces necessary to pump blood through the body, Metallo said. Therefore, it is important that heart cells generated from stem cells in the lab eat the right foods. His research is focused on understanding cell metabolism - how cells convert carbohydrates, fat, and protein into fuel - and how disruptions in these processes contribute to diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity.

Metallo joined the Jacobs School of Engineering in 2011 after completing a postdoctoral fellowship on the metabolism of cancer cells at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His research there changed our understanding of how cells convert carbohydrates and protein (amino acids) to fat, a process which was thought to have been settled science for more than 50 years. The study, which was published January 2012, in the journal Nature, means doctors could have new targets for therapeutic drugs designed to stop cancer cell growth. In recognition of this work, Metallo was named the Rita Schaffer Young Investigator in 2012, which is awarded each year by the Biomedical Engineering Society to stimulate the research career of a young bioengineer. Last year, he was one of 15 young investigators in the United States selected to be a 2013 Searle Scholar.

The eight CIRM Basic Biology Awards for UC San Diego faculty were:

Maike Sander, School of Medicine, Department of Pediatrics, was awarded $1.161 million

Christian Metallo, Bioengineering, Jacobs School of Engineering, awarded $1,124 million

Cornelis Murré, Biological Sciences, awarded $1.161 million

Wei Wang, Chemistry and Biochemistry, awarded $1.161 million

David Cheresh, School of Medicine, Department of Pathology, UC San Diego Moores Cancer Center, awarded $1.161 million

Miles Wilkinson, School of Medicine, Department of Reproductive Medicine, awarded $619,200

Lawrence Goldstein, School of Medicine, Departments of Cellular and Molecular Medicine and Neurosciences, and Director of the UC

San Diego Stem Cell Program, $1,161 million

Dianne McKay, School of Medicine, Department of Medicine, $615,639

The CIRM Basic Biology Awards V, Track 2: "Exploratory Concepts Awards" were designed to target projects testing highly novel hypotheses which, if proven, have the potential to dramatically and rapidly advance the field. Studies supported through both tracks of the Basic Biology Awards V will form the foundation for future translational and clinical advances, enabling the realization of the full potential of human stem cells and reprogrammed cells for therapies and as tools for biomedical innovation.

UC San Diego is also part of a new Center of Excellence in Stem Cell Genomics, awarded $40 million in funding to bring together experts and investigators from seven different major California institutions. Stanford University and the Salk Institute are joint principal investigators; other collaborators include The Scripps Research Institute, the J. Craig Venter Institute and Illumina, Inc. - all in San Diego. UC Santa Cruz will run the data coordination and management component, enabling the research to be shared with investigators around the world.

The Center of Excellence will focus on bridging the fields of genomics - studying the complete genetic make-up of a cell or organism - with stem cell research. The goal is to use these tools to gain a deeper understanding of the disease processes in cancer, diabetes, heart disease and mental health, and ultimately to try and find safer and more effective ways of using stem cells in medical research and therapy.

The new $8.165 million in Basic Biology grant funding brings the total funding to UC San Diego to $139,976,498 since CIRM's inception in 2006.


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