Photo of Claire Pomeroy and Dick Martinez Claire Pomeroy chats with Dick Martinez at the CIRM meeting.

Stem cells offer promise for restoring blood flow to limbs

Those who spy Dick Martinez active on the golf course or racquetball court wouldn't guess the 68-year-old lost every toe on his right foot due to complications from diabetes.

The Colorado native also has had a corneal transplant and six-way bypass. He believes that stem cells, cells capable of producing almost any of the 226 types of cells in humans, hold great promise to treat diabetes and other diseases so others won't have to go through similar experiences. He also poignantly mentions his wife's 9-year-old granddaughter, who also suffers from diabetes, as someone whom he hopes will one day benefit from a cure.

Martinez recently spoke to an audience of researchers, physicians and other attendees at a Sacramento meeting of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine, the state's stem cell agency. His appearance was part of a special session organized by UC Davis that focused on stem cell research and peripheral vascular disease, a leading cause of death in the United States.

The stem cell agency will deliver $3 billion in funding to California stem cell scientists over a decade's time, thanks to the passage three years ago of Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act. In the past two months, four UC Davis scientists have received a total of nearly $6 million in grants from the agency to develop and support new research projects.

"Try walking a mile in the shoes of a diabetic, it's a terrible disease," said Martinez. "Those of us with diabetes need research to cure it."

UC Davis physicians and scientists are at the forefront of research and treatment of peripheral vascular disease, a condition commonly associated with chronic diabetes. John Laird, medical director of the UC Davis Vascular Center, is an internationally renowned interventional cardiologist who is using the latest surgical and non-invasive techniques to treat peripheral vascular disease to prevent amputations. He believes stem cells have the power to improve patient care.

"As a practicing cardiologist, I'm very hopeful that stem cell therapies will provide optimism for patients with diabetes and those with severe peripheral vascular disease who have no other treatment option to save their limbs," said Laird. “Stem cell therapy may give us new techniques to grow blood vessels and restore circulation.”

Jan Nolta, director of UC Davis' stem cell program, is overseeing the creation of new facilities for regenerative medicine research and therapies and is currently conducting state-of-the-art research on peripheral arterial disease using human adult stem cells in mouse models. Preliminary investigations have shown that damaged blood vessels — vessels that allowed no blood flow to the legs — could be revascularized (repaired) using adult human stem cells.

Nolta's studies have also showed how stem cells are able to quickly migrate to an injured area and can restore blood flow within days. The research is just one step toward improving the lives of people like Dick Martinez, who suffer the effects of peripheral vascular disease every day.

"If we can do this in a mouse, we can see in the future the ability to grow new blood vessels in human beings so they don't have to undergo amputation," said Claire Pomeroy, UC Davis vice chancellor for Human Health Sciences and dean of the School of Medicine. "Stem cell research is about saving limbs and saving lives."