UC Davis stem cell researcher awarded March of Dimes grant
One of UC Davis School of Medicine's recent stem cell recruits is set to receive a prestigious Basil O'Connor Starter Scholar Research Award from the March of Dimes Birth Defects Foundation on February 1.
The grant, worth $150,000 over the next two years, is going to Paul S. Knoepfler, an assistant professor of cell biology and human anatomy and an assistant investigator at Shriner's Hospital for Children Northern California. Starter scholar awards are designed for young scientists at the beginning of their independent careers and help support basic research.
Knoepfler, who earned his doctorate in molecular pathology, specializes in stem cell and cancer-related research. Some of his work focuses on deciphering how stem cells are programmed and how that programming can go awry, thereby causing birth defects or cancer. His March of Dimes-funded work will specifically analyze links in stem cells, looking for epigenetic changes that may lead to birth defects. Epigenetics is the study of the mechanism by which the environment influences gene expression independent of mutations.
"The knowledge gained from the studies funded by the March of Dimes," said Knoepfler, "may allow us to prevent birth defects by teaching us how specific environmental factors alter the stem cell functions that are key to normal development."
— Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis stem cell program
Knoepfler added that one long term goal is to use study results to help avoid such exposures and to aid in the development of therapies using regenerative medicine to treat birth defects during both prenatal and early postnatal stages.
"One of the reasons that Paul Knoepfler's work stands out," said Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis stem cell program, "is that he has demonstrated some very exciting and novel approaches to stem cell science. His upcoming investigations will pave the way for future discoveries of new types of regenerative therapies and treatments that will address the nation's leading cause of infant deaths."
Knoepfler, who joined UC Davis less than two years ago, now oversees the work of his own laboratory at the Shriners hospital, where much of UC Davis stem cell program is currently being housed until construction of new research facilities in Sacramento are completed.
Knoepfler's lab also has a long-standing interest in determining the stem cell functions of one of the genes involved in the formation of what are called "induced pluripotent stem cells," which possess many of the same characteristics as embryonic stem cells.
"The gene in question, Myc, is not only a key regulator of normal stem cell biology but also is strongly linked to most types of human cancer," said Knoepfler. "Our studies may provide important clues to aid in the development of effective and safe stem cell therapies, while giving us a better understanding of tumor formation, possibly leading to future novel approaches to treat cancer."
Knoepfler's academic career is as interesting as his research. He received a bachelor's degree in English literature from Reed College in Oregon before earning a Ph.D. in molecular pathology from UC San Diego in 1998. He did postdoctoral research at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Washington before arriving at UC Davis in 2006.
The March of Dimes was established in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, initially to fight polio. Today, the foundation focuses on health problems in babies, especially premature birth, birth defects and low birthweight. A number of researchers funded by the foundation have gone on to win Nobel prizes, including three recipients of Basil O'Connor awards.