Ann Bonham knows that building a successful stem cell research program will take top-tier team players who can build on existing success.
"A big part of my job has been to broker exciting, complementary alliances between the star researchers we already have and those we would like to recruit," says Bonham, executive associate dean for research and education at the UC Davis School of Medicine.
Recent UC Davis recruits Ronald Li and Paul Knoepfler epitomize "stem cell scientists who have big visions and the collaborative mindsets that will draw others from multiple disciplines," Bonham explains.
Joining the stem cell program from Johns Hopkins University and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center respectively, Li and Knoepfler bring an exciting array of research interests – and medical firsts.
For instance, "Ron Li has demonstrated that transplanted stem cells can give rise to spontaneously beating heart cells," Bonham says.
To his new position at the Institute for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine, Knoepfler brings a uniquely human voice to the science of "understanding childhood diseases such as pediatric tumors."
"One of the most effective methods for transferring one's passion about science to others is being willing to show emotion," Knoepfler explains. "Many people view scientists as dispassionate, but while science can require great patience and resilience, scientists themselves are often extremely passionate about their work."
A new beat
Five days before Christmas 2004, Ronald Li and postdoctoral fellow Tian Xue announced a striking discovery from their laboratory at Johns Hopkins University – a biological pacemaker derived from human embryonic stem cells.
Injected into the heart muscles of six guinea pigs, the human cells took control after the researchers destroyed the cardiac cells that made up each animal's natural pacemakers. Electrical measurements revealed a new beat, slower than normal for guinea pigs but closer to the human heart rate.
Clearly superior to electronic pacemakers, stem cell-derived pacemakers raise a heart rate in response to exercise and respond appropriately to heartbeat-altering medications – features absent from their artificial kin.
With Li and his research now at UC Davis, "we are one of only three labs in this country – five worldwide – to have reported successful derivation of human heart cells from human embryonic stem cells,"
Li explains. "We have proven that human heart cells generated in the lab can become functionally integrated with the recipient heart after transplantation."
Li says his research group is "planning to develop several gene and cell-based strategies to treat burn-induced, neuropathic pain" in collaboration with Institute of Pediatric Regenerative Medicine director David Pleasure and David Greenhalgh, Shriners Hospitals for Children Northern California chief of burn surgery.
Having a Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) lab nearby will undoubtedly enhance this collaboration.
"I can't describe to you how excited I am that we will soon have a GMP facility in the future stem cell research building on this campus, right next to our labs," Li says.
A scientist with heart
Among his first collaborations at UC Davis, Paul Knoepfler will work with Center for Pediatric Stem/Progenitor Cell Translational Research director Alice Tarantal to generate the first primate embryonic neural stem cells.
As a postdoctoral fellow, his research on cancer-causing "Myc genes" that affect cell division during the growth phase brought him the Howard Temin Award, a five-year, $700,000 stipend for outstanding young scientists from the National Cancer Institute.
But to Knoepfler, being an outstanding scientist means more than just lab work.
With a degree in English literature from Reed College – recently ranked the number one undergraduate institution by Princeton Review for its unusually successful marriage of science and the humanities – Knoepfler wants to use speaking and writing to communicate in the broader community about science.
"I am currently developing a web site – http://www.stem.ws – where I hope scientists and lay people can learn about stem cells," he notes. "Part of the website will be specifically targeted to educating children. It's particularly important that we develop resources for school-aged children to learn about stem cells at a level that doesn't intimidate them."
Knoepfler says he relocated to UC Davis because he saw a drive to "compete at the highest level and back up that goal with a very impressive commitment of resources. UC Davis is unique in terms of the remarkable speed with which it is improving its stem cell program."
Speed is a good thing in research that can be a slow "tough ride" at times, explains Ronald Li, who once waited 18 months to generate a single data point.
Back when he says his was the first and only group to be working with stem cells at Johns Hopkins, Li thought it sounded too good to be true to be able to grow heart and brain cells in the lab. "But we kept the faith," Li says. "And one day, it just started working."