Two UC Davis scientists receive state funding for innovative stem cell research

Dr. Kit Lam
Kit Lam

Two UC Davis School of Medicine stem cell researchers were among the nearly two dozen scientists who received research funding this week from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state's stem cell agency.

Alice F. Tarantal, professor of Pediatrics and director of the Center of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research, and Kit S. Lam, professor of Medicine and chief of the Division of Oncology and Hematology, were awarded $842,149 and $835,540 respectively to fund investigations over the next two years under the new CIRM Tools and Technologies Awards. The grants support work that creates new techniques and capabilities for stem cell research or scales up existing technologies.

Lam's research into cancer and tissue regeneration focuses on a state-of-the-art method of identifying synthetic molecules that bind to receptors on the surface of stem cells. Tarantal's project is looking at new ways to utilize in vivo imaging technology currently used in clinical settings for stem cell research.

"Stem cells hold great potential for treating a variety of human diseases," said Tarantal, who also was awarded a CIRM comprehensive grant for her research on how to differentiate human embryonic stem cells for the treatment of pediatric kidney disease. "However, more information is needed on how they might function once administered to patients. Imaging techniques hold great promise for allowing us to safely monitor stem cells once they are in the human body."

Tarantal is taking advantage of positron emission tomography (PET) which produces three-dimensional images by detecting a tracer or label that has been introduced into the body. Working with UC Davis College of Engineering colleagues Simon Cherry and Julie Sutcliffe, she plans to focus on the sensitivity of the PET scanner to detect specially tagged cells and customize the imaging process for use in tracking individual stem and progenitor cells after they have been transplanted into a patient.

Jan Nolta"This is a very exciting time to be in stem cell research, and clearly the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is the world leader in helping us advance the science."
— Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures

For his CIRM-funded project, Lam and his team will be using a highly specialized, state-of-the-art method to identify synthetic chemical molecules that bind to unique receptors (protein molecules) on the surface of human embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. He believes some of the chemical molecules identified by this technique — known as the "one-bead-one-compound" (OBOC) combinatorial library method — will support the growth and proliferation of stem cells while maintaining their unique ability for self-renewal. Other molecules may induce stem and iPS cells into becoming specific and desirable cell types such as heart cells for damaged heart and brain cells for patients who suffer stroke.

"One of the more difficult issues with stem cells is their inherent instability," Lam said. "The lack of reliable and effective methods to maintain and direct them to specific differentiation, the process by which a less specialized cell becomes a more specialized cell type, has limited their use in clinical settings. Our work will help us better understand the molecular foundations that lead to that instability and, more importantly, find ways to overcome it and expand the potential for stem cell therapies for degenerative and chronic diseases."

Since the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine began funding stem cell research following the voter approval of the $3 billion bond measure known as Proposition 71, UC Davis has received nine grants from the agency, totaling more than $37 million. The support ranges from grants to individual scientists to funding for a 90,000 square-foot laboratories' facility now under construction on UC Davis' Sacramento campus near its medical center.

"This is a very exciting time to be in stem cell research," said Jan Nolta, professor of Internal Medicine and director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, "and clearly the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine is the world leader in helping us advance the science. Its support of Dr. Lam's work in combinatorial chemistry could lead to the discovery of new and important compounds that support stem cell growth and directed differentiation. Dr. Tarantal now has funding for an investigation that will provide us with a much better understanding of stem cell migration and survival, which is critical for developing safe stem cell therapies and cures."

The UC Davis Stem Cell Program

For patients and families suffering from chronic disease or injury, the promise of stem cell therapies offers great hope. UC Davis is a leader in advancing that promising goal. It has brought together physicians, research scientists, biomedical engineers and a range of other experts and collaborative partners to establish the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures: a facility supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

The new $62 million institute will be housed in a 90,000 square-foot facility on the university’s Sacramento campus, where collaborative, team-oriented science will advance breakthrough discoveries and bring stem cell therapies and cures to patients.

Click here to learn more.

Both Lam and Tarantal also earned praise and high scores for their projects from CIRM's scientific review committee members, who analyze each grant proposal and submit recommendations to the institute's governing board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

Reviewers were impressed by Lam's proposed technology and its potential to enhance both basic research and the field of stem cell biology. They noted that the identification of small molecule ligands to manipulate self-renewal, pluripotency and directed differentiation of human embryonic stem cells and iPS cells would be an important advance.

Reviewers agreed that Tarantal's project addresses a key roadblock in stem cell research, which is the ability of scientists and clinicians to track transplanted cells. They unanimously complemented her for assembling a well-coordinated, interdisciplinary research team, with one reviewer commenting that if an in vivo imaging project can be done for stem cells, "this is the team to do it."

UC Davis is playing a leading role in stem cell research, with more than 100 scientists and physicians currently working on a variety of stem cell investigations at campus locations in both Davis and Sacramento.

The university is constructing a 92,000 square-foot stem cell research facility in Sacramento, where researchers will have access to state-of-the-art laboratories and cell manufacturing and testing rooms.

That project, along with the newly-funded Translational Human Embryonic Stem Cell Shared Research Facility in Davis, will complement the university's Clinical and Translational Science Center, which is supported by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has awarded more than $13 million to researchers at UC Davis, to conduct stem cell research. In 2005, the NIH awarded $6 million to UC Davis to fund a Center of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research, one of only two such centers in the nation. For more information, visit