UC Davis' burgeoning stem cell research program received another funding boost with the announcement last week of two more grants from the publicly funded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM.
The new grants, worth an estimated $4.76 million, will go to Alice Tarantal and Mark Zern. Last month, the stem cell agency awarded a total of nearly $837,000 to UC Davis' Harri Redi and Ebenezer Yamoah in the first round of funding intended to "jump-start" human embryonic stem cell research in California.
The first round delivered nearly $45 million around the state, and the second round totaled nearly $75 million. The second round targeted experienced researchers like Tarantal and Zern.
"We are extremely proud of these outstanding investigators and the excellent research that has gone into the successful applications," said Jan Nolta, stem cell program director for UC Davis School of Medicine. "These grants from CIRM will definitely enhance the field of regenerative medicine so that our patients and many others might be able to benefit from innovative new medical treatments and cures."
The agency's allocation list, subject to revision, lists $2.26 million over four years for Tarantal, a professor of pediatrics and director of the Center for Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research. Her research will focus on how to differentiate human embryonic stem cells into becoming the type of cells needed to regenerate kidneys damaged by disease, something that affects thousands of babies born each year in the United States.
"In California alone, there are over 15,000 people on the current waiting list for kidney transplants and of those, approximately 75 are children under the age of 10," Tarantal said. "The possibility of using stem cells to treat and repair damaged organs offers great hope for improving the survival and quality of life for these young patients."
Zern's tentative allocation is $2.5 million over four years. A professor of internal medicine and director of transplant research at UC Davis, Zern is working with embryonic stem cells and two other cell types to determine which cells are best suited to becoming liver cells for the repair of damaged livers. Today there are about 17,000 people waiting for liver transplants in the United States.
"Throughout the country, there are simply not enough livers available for everyone who needs one," Zern said. "If we can learn to develop the types of stem cells that could repair damaged livers — liver cells that could divide and grow indefinitely -- then we could do liver cell transplantation to replace the traditional, whole organ transplants of today."
Scientists are keenly interested in stem cells because they have the potential to develop into many different cell types, such as liver, kidney, brain or heart. When unspecialized stem cells divide into specialized cells, the process is called "differentiation," and understanding what triggers differentiation and how to direct it to areas of the body are among the key areas of regenerative medicine research.
Both Zern's and Tarantal's research includes a number of tests and modeling experiments to determine whether embryonic stem cells can function as directed and not mistakenly give rise to other cell types or problems such as cancer. They are optimistic that their research can help fill some of the significant scientific gaps in the development of new therapies using human embryonic stem cells.
Charles Casey is a senior public information representative for the UC Davis Health System.