When Joyce Ma started medical school two years ago, she had little reason to think she would not be following a straight clinical path. But her life took a new turn when she met Rudolph Schrot, assistant professor in the Department of Neurological Surgery.
United through the medical student-faculty mentoring program, the two discussed Schro's ideas for research exploring the role of stem cells in the development of glioblastomas, one of the most common – and deadliest – brain tumors in adults.
"From our very first conversation, it was clear that we shared a mutual interest in stem cells and brain tumors. We both became very excited about possible approaches for designing a novel study," remembers Ma.
Schrot and Ma joined Professor James Angelastro's lab in the Department of Molecular Biosciences in the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, to collaborate with Angelastro and Claudia Greco in the Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine at UC Davis Health System. Last spring, the group presented preliminary data at both the national meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and of the American Association of Neurological Surgeons. While others had linked stem cells with glioblastomas in animal models, the UC Davis team was the first to identify certain markers for stem cells in whole human brain tissue.
"Everyone at the meetings was like, 'Holy cow! How did you do that?'" Ma says with a smile. "They kept congratulating us and wanting to know the specifics of our protocol."
Training is critical
The experience was enough to hook Ma on stem cell research. Hooking others – and ensuring they acquire the necessary skills to be successful – is the mission of a new comprehensive program designed to train young physicians and scientists in stem cell research.
The training program is funded from a $2.6 million grant awarded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the agency created by the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004. Although other Prop. 71 funding has been tied up in litigation challenging the state's stem cell efforts, the training funds have been received. The award recognizes the strength of the UC Davis training effort combined with Shriners Hospitals for Children, the California National Primate Research Center, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Merced.
Earmarking funds for training in stem cell research is critically important at this juncture in science, according to Frederick Meyers, senior associate dean for faculty affairs, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine and director of the training program. UC Davis stem cell researchers Alice Tarantal and David Pleasure are co-directors.
Stem cell research, he explains, has been a very specialized field with relatively few people proficient in its techniques, but now the need for more basic and clinically oriented scientists has exploded.
"There have been more than 40 years of basic research in stem cell biology, but only recently have we acquired the tools to further this understanding in a clinically useful way," Meyers says. "Science is poised to take a giant leap forward because we now have the potential to open the field to a whole host of diverse medical conditions and make real clinical contributions."
Turning thinking around
While the popular press usually focuses on the potential to use stem cells for cloning and growing new tissues for treatment purposes, stem cells are also key to understanding disease, according to Schrot.
Schrot, who focuses much of his brain research on stem cells, is excited about the training grants.
"Stem cell research is a team effort, and the training funds will give us the best possible players. We want to get the most out of the incredible talent that we have in the graduate students and fellows, and the training grants allow us to do that. This affects everyone at UC Davis doing stem cell research, such as myself and expert scientists like Dr. Angelastro in Vet Med with whom I collaborate. Now more than ever UC Davis is the place for stem cell research," said Schrot.
Collaboration is critical
UC Davis has long fostered interactions between departments, schools and even institutions. Drawing from diverse areas of expertise allowed the collaboration among Ma, Schrot and their colleagues to make discoveries that had eluded stem cell researchers at other institutions.
"We offer a huge advantage in research opportunity because of the already established collaborations between different disciplines," says Meyers.
The recent findings in glioblastomas underscore the importance of developing new therapies.
"There hasn't been a major breakthrough in brain tumor treatment in 40 years," says Schrot. "But I think we're on the verge of one with our understanding of cancer stem cells."