In three short years, the UC Davis Stem Cell Program has moved to the forefront of regenerative medicine research in California.
The program is near the top of the list of institutions funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state stem cell agency. It has grown to include more than 135 basic, translational and clinical faculty members, is involved in innovative partnerships both on and off campus, and is months away from opening a state-of-the art facility that will allow the start of stem cell-based clinical trials.
Director Jan Nolta is the driving force behind the program, but takes only partial credit for these achievements.
"I've really just been playing matchmaker," Nolta says.
Since her arrival, Nolta has been meeting with researchers throughout campus to learn more about the stem cell research under way, as well as which researchers were poised to add stem cell research to their programs. She identified 15 disease-team areas – from HIV/ AIDS to hearing loss. Five of these teams, Nolta reports, were among 20 academic teams selected by CIRM through competitive review to move forward to full application for funding.
"When I got here, people were already doing great work," Nolta says. "Now, they are doing it together in additional areas."
CIRM grants for UC Davis total over $48 million, with $20 million earmarked for the $62 million Institute for Regenerative Cures, a 90,000-square-foot facility that provides researchers with advanced laboratories, cell manufacturing areas and testing rooms.
The institute's Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) laboratory – a facility that adheres to strict federal guidelines for the production of cells and other materials used to treat humans – will open later this year. Clinical trials will begin once the validation process is complete and the facility is operational.
"This will be the premier human stem cell GMP facility in Northern California," says Gerhard Bauer, director of the GMP lab.
The first clinical trials at UC Davis will use marrow-derived stem cells from patients to treat vision loss or disruption caused by retinal occlusion (blocked arteries and veins of the eye), to repair damage to heart tissue following a heart attack, and to restore blood flow in patients suffering from peripheral vascular disease.
Partnerships on, off campus
In addition to bringing together individual researchers, Nolta has developed collaborations across disciplines. In May, the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine opened its new Regenerative Medicine Laboratory at the William R. Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. The new lab focuses on use of stem cell therapies to treat injured and diseased horses, but in the future is expected to add treatments for dogs and cats.
Nolta says a working partnership with the veterinary school's stem cell program has already resulted in enormous benefits for the School of Medicine.
"We learn a lot about treating human disease from successes in our care of the veterinary patients." Community members have also done a little matchmaking, Nolta says.
"The patients and patient advocates for Huntington's disease sought me out early on," she recalls. "After meeting them, helping to cure this dreadful disease has become one of my true passions in life."
The outreach proved beneficial. In May, CIRM awarded Dr. Nolta's team a $2.7 million grant to create and test a new treatment for the disease, using mesenchymal stem cells harvested from a normal donor's bone marrow and engineered to fight the mutant protein.
"Families like mine have been waiting for an intervention for Huntington's since the gene was located 16 years ago," says Judy Roberson, president of the Huntington's Disease Society of America's Northern California Chapter. "Now, thanks to CIRM support and the research at UC Davis, there's real hope."
Training others a key
Nolta says she is particularly proud to be able to partner with her former mentors at California State University, Sacramento, to train skilled scientific and laboratory personnel who will fill the demand for jobs in the growing number of stem cell research laboratories. In March, CIRM awarded a three-year, $1.3 million "Bridges to Stem Cell Research" grant to fund a program of internships and related opportunities for cellular and molecular biology students from Sacramento State to work in UC Davis stem cell laboratories.
"This grant provides our students with a tremendous opportunity for careers in one of the leading areas of scientific research," says Laurel Heffernan, associate dean and professor of biological sciences at Sacramento State. Dr. Heffernan was Dr. Nolta's former mentor at CSUS, and has helped many other students from disadvantaged backgrounds to become academic and community leaders.
The stem cell program is also working with The Jackson Laboratory, a Bar Harbor, Maine, company whose Sacramento facility is developing new therapies for cancer, Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and other diseases. UC Davis researchers are using some of the unique animal models developed by the company in their research. Nolta predicts a mutually beneficial collaboration.
Both Bauer and Nolta say UC Davis is becoming a major leader in the state and the country in stem cell research.
"This is a great collaborative environment with a real focus on innovation," Bauer says.
Nolta agrees. "What I love about UC Davis is the wonderful spirit of teamwork throughout the basic, translational and clinical groups and that we all pull forward together as teams rather than having internal competition. With our great spirit of teamwork and guidance from our community members, we are developing much-needed cures for diseases and injuries that can only be accomplished by groups working effectively together. It truly takes a village."