Skip to main content
Research at UC Davis Health System

Research at UC Davis Health System

NEWS | May 24, 2012

State awards stem cell grants to UC Davis researchers

Biomedical engineer and surgeon developing therapies to repair cartilage injuries and cardiac damage

Editor's note:

Click here to view or download high-resolution photographs of Kyriacos A. Athanasiou and W. Douglas Boyd.

(SACRAMENTO, Calif.)

California's stem cell agency today approved two grants to UC Davis Health System researchers for their innovative work in regenerative medicine.

Kyriacos Athanasiou © UC Regents
Kyriacos A. Athanasiou

Kyriacos A. Athanasiou, distinguished professor of orthopaedic surgery and professor and chair of biomedical engineering, and the Child Family Professor of Engineering at UC Davis, is investigating the use of skin-derived stem cells to heal cartilage injuries and debilitating conditions of the knee such as osteoarthritis. W. Douglas Boyd, professor of surgery, plans to further refine a novel approach to treating cardiovascular injuries suffered during a heart attack by using stem cells and a tissue-like scaffold to repair cardiac damage. The pair received individual grants totaling approximately $6.6 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine's (CIRM) governing board at its meeting today in San Francisco.

Athanasiou's and Boyd's multi-year grants were among the proposals submitted to CIRM for its third round of Early Translational Awards, which are intended to enable clinical therapies to be developed more rapidly.

"Both of these scientists are conducting exciting research that could have far-reaching implications in health care," said Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and the university's stem cell program director. "Dr. Athanasiou is bioengineering new cartilage that could have the same physiological integrity as the cartilage a person is born with. Dr. Boyd is developing a treatment that uses a paper-thin patch embedded with stem cells to harness their regenerative powers to repair damaged heart muscle."

Boyd, who's a pioneering cardiothoracic surgeon, pointed out in his CIRM proposal that heart disease is the nation's number-one cause of death and disability. An estimated 16.3 million Americans over the age of 20 suffer from coronary heart disease, which in 2007 accounted for an estimated 1 in 6 deaths in the U.S. Boyd plans to use bone-marrow derived stem cells --- known as mesenchymal stem cells --- in combination with a bioengineered framework known as an extracellular matrix, to regenerate damaged heart tissue, block heart disease and restore cardiac function, something currently not possible except in cases of a complete and very invasive heart transplant.

W. Douglas Boyd © UC Regents
W. Douglas Boyd

An expert in biomedical engineering, Athanasiou is focusing on developing a cellular therapy using stem cells created from an individual's own skin --- known as autologous skin-derived stem cells --- which have shown great promise in animal models. He plans to use the new funding to conduct extensive toxicology and durability tests to determine the technique's long-term safety and efficacy. Such tests are among the many steps needed to advance toward human clinical trials.

Cartilage is the slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in joints, allowing bones to glide over each other and absorbing the shock of movement. Cartilage defects from injuries and lifelong wear and tear can eventually degenerate into osteoarthritis. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and affects an estimated 27 million Americans over the age of 25.

"For anyone suffering from osteoarthritis or other debilitating cartilage conditions, Dr. Athanasiou's goal of using stem cells to regenerate new tissue could have enormous quality-of-life and economic benefits," said Nolta, who is the recipient of a prior translational grant from CIRM to develop potential therapies for Huntington's disease . "Dr. Boyd's work is equally promising because he's using a bioengineered structure to encourage cardiac tissue repair, which could have important benefits in the treatment of heart disease."  

UC Davis has now received a total of 30 grants worth approximately $72 million since the state began funding for stem cell research in 2005.

UC Davis is playing a leading role in regenerative medicine, with nearly 150 scientists working on a variety of stem cell-related research projects at campus locations in both Davis and Sacramento. The UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, a facility supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), opened in 2010 on the Sacramento campus. This $62 million facility is the university's hub for stem cell science. It includes Northern California's largest academic Good Manufacturing Practice laboratory, with state-of-the-art equipment and manufacturing rooms for cellular and gene therapies. UC Davis also has a Translational Human Embryonic Stem Cell Shared Research Facility in Davis and a collaborative partnership with the Institute for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine at Shriners Hospital for Children Northern California. All of the programs and facilities complement the university's Clinical and Translational Science Center, and focus on turning stem cells into cures. For more information, visit www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/stemcellresearch.