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UC Davis' new stem cell training program encourages a collaborative, team approach to helping young scientists obtain the experience and expertise.

Medical student Joyce Ma is among 10 graduate students and postdoctoral fellows chosen for a new training program in stem cell research at the University of California, Davis.

The training program is funded by a three-year, $2.6 million grant from  California's Institute for Regenerative Medicine , the agency created by Proposition 71 in 2004. UC Davis is one of the 16 non-profit institutions in California that received the state's first-ever stem cell funding. The grants are earmarked to train young scientists in the rapidly growing field.

The training program encourages a collaborative, team approach to helping young scientists obtain the experience and expertise needed to successfully work with stem cells. In addition to working with mentors from the UC Davis schools of medicine and veterinary medicine, and its colleges of engineering, biological sciences, agriculture and environmental sciences and law, trainees will take courses ranging from the basics of stem cell biology to those that focus on the social, legal and ethical implications of stem cell research.

Ma applied for the program after participating in research at UC Davis that resulted in the first identification of specific stem cell markers in human glioblastoma, the most common and deadliest primary brain tumor in adults. Her research goals came into sharp focus when she attended several international neurology meetings to help present those findings.

“The conferences helped me realize how crucial collaboration and good mentors can be in developing novel scientific approaches to understanding diseases like cancer,” said Ma. “I feel very fortunate because this training program is an ideal way for me to gain the scientific confidence necessary for working in regenerative medicine.”

Stem cell research has been a very specialized field for years because of the formidable hurdles of being able to identify stem and progenitor cells and then being able to develop the right conditions under which these cells can be grown or can be differentiated into specialized cell types. But with a potential to offer therapies and cures to people with chronic illness and injury, the need for more basic and clinically oriented stem cell scientists is soaring.

“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,” said Frederick Meyers , senior associate dean and chair of internal medicine, who directs the new training program. “Science is poised to take a giant leap forward in this arena, and we want to enhance and further develop the necessary expertise.”

Ma's mentor in the program is David Pleasure, professor of neurology and pediatrics, and director of the Institute for Pediatric Regenerative Medicine at Shriners Hospitals in Sacramento. He is helping to guide Ma's research as she works to understand the role neural stem cells play in the growth of deadly brain tumors.

Nine other young scientists are participating in the program. Their focus of research, along with their chosen mentor, are listed below:

  • Cynthia A. Batchelder, Ph.D. will study the potential for using stem and progenitor cells for kidney repair, regeneration and the treatment of pediatric kidney diseases (Alice Tarantal, professor of pediatrics and cell biology and human anatomy).
  • Tedla D. Dadi, D.V.M., Ph.D. is exploring new mouse stem cells and their use in the prevention of diseases such as atherosclerosis by altering genes involved in metabolism (Kent Lloyd, professor of anatomy, physiology and cell biology).
  • Jidong Fu, Ph.D. is focusing on protein-signaling pathways in human embryonic stem cells, specifically for differentiation of cardiomyocytes (Ronald Li, associate professor of cell biology and human anatomy).
  • Catherine A. Glass, Ph.D. is examining the role of blood vessel endothelial progenitor cells in the maintenance of vascular function (Fitz-Roy Curry, professor of human physiology).
  • Michael S. Kareta, a graduate student in biochemistry and molecular biology, will use mouse embryonic stem cells as a model system to understand how such cells can be reprogrammed (Frederic Chedin, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology).
  • Shelly L. Meeusen, Ph.D. is focusing on mechanisms related to the central nervous system and repair after injury, particularly on how stem cells react to injury (Wenbin Deng, professor of cell biology and human anatomy).
  • Laura B. Shih, a graduate student in biomedical engineering, will focus on developing conditions to direct the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into an airway epithelial cell lineage (Reen Wu, professor of internal medicine and anatomy, physiology, and cell biology).
  • Basha Stankovich, a graduate student in quantitative and systems biology at UC Merced, will test hypotheses associated with embryonic stem cells differentiating toward blood cells (Maria Pallavicini, professor of natural sciences, University of California, Merced).
  • Dongguang Wei, Ph.D. is addressing studies that could offer a better understanding of the interactive proteins involving cells in the inner ear (Ebenezer Yamoah, associate professor of otolaryngology).

The training program adds another key element to a number of stem cell activities already under way at UC Davis. In July, the university announced a new stem cell research effort that will be based in Sacramento and includes a highly specialized cell and gene therapy laboratory. This state-of-the-art facility is required in order to safely and efficiently develop potential stem cell treatments for eventual use in human clinical trials.

Last fall, the National Institutes of Health awarded $6 million to fund a Center of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research at UC Davis, which makes it one of only two such centers in the nation. The new center is focused on exploring stem and progenitor cell therapies for the treatment of childhood diseases, including those that affect the blood and kidneys.

With experts in fields ranging from biology and agricultural research to medical sciences and veterinary medicine, the university has focused on advancing the science of regenerative medicine. In addition to being the home of the California National Primate Research Center and a National Science Foundation-supported biophotonics center, the university's $95 million genome and biomedical research facility further enhances the ability to bring together various scientific disciplines in the pursuit of stem cell discoveries and breakthroughs.

The UC Davis stem cell training program and its larger stem cell research efforts have a strong and unique focus, with a commitment to translational research, which is central to the mission of the university. This focus brings together investigations in basic biology and a dedication to reducing the suffering from human diseases. Partnerships with institutions such as UC Merced and Shriners Hospitals for Children-Northern California, and among the schools and colleges within UC Davis, expand the sharing of knowledge to enhance human health.