New stem cell center focuses on childhood disease

On the omnipotent cells that are the foundation for every organ in the body rests the hope for a better future, especially for youngsters suffering from a variety of debilitating diseases. Tiny units of life known as stem cells have the potential to offer huge returns in the world of medicine and health care because they have the ability to develop into specialized tissues and organs, or become cells that could overcome the toughest health problems.

While experts say the use of stem cells for treatments or organ replacement could be years away, leading edge research into potential stem cell therapies is in full motion throughout UC Davis.

One of the most exciting efforts can be found in the new Center for Pediatric Stem and Progenitor Cell Translational Research, a new center of excellence in translational research funded by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute and National Institutes of Health.

This new human stem cell center is focusing on studies relevant to childhood health problems. It brings together researchers from the UC Davis School of Medicine and a number of leading universities and children’s hospitals throughout the U.S. and Canada. Together these researchers are collaborating on studies that one day could lead to cellular treatments for children afflicted with a number of congenital diseases such as those that affect blood cells, the cardiovascular system and disorders of the kidney.

The center has a number of projects in the works, including research into cell expansion and reconstitution, transplantation and cell fate – pediatric nonhuman primate models and non-invasive in vivo – imaging to track transplanted cells. The latter two areas of study are of particular importance for the eventual use of stem cell-based therapies on patients because they will help establish the safety of such treatments for humans.

UC Davis stands out in this regard not only because it houses the only primate research center in California, but also because it has biomedical and bioengineering scientists who are working together to develop unique imaging equipment and techniques for tracking transplanted cells in a noninvasive manner. Indeed, the only way to bring stem cell therapies from lab to the patient is first to conduct numerous translational and clinical studies. The center is designed specifically for that purpose.

Led by research scientist and pediatrics faculty member Alice Tarantal, the center has a pilot and feasibility program that builds upon established research programs and provides opportunities for a variety of innovative collaborations. Working with scientists who have extensive stem and progenitor cell expertise, Tarantal is confident the center can successfully develop techniques and methodologies that will further advance the treatment of human disease with the use of stem and progenitor cells.

The center has three key projects that should significantly enhance the eventual use of stem cells:

  • Determine a method for expanding the number of stem cells arising from cord blood. Currently, a major limitation to more widespread use of this material is that the number of hematopoietic (blood forming) stem cells in cord blood samples may be insufficient for use, particularly with unrelated and mismatched recipients. Being able increase the numbers of stem cells developed from cord blood would be a major scientific advance.

  • Investigate potential cellular therapies using progenitor cells as a foundation for eventual intervention trials in humans. In this case, the focus would be on discovering potential therapies that would be applicable to young children with kidney disease.

  • Develop methods leading to the safe use of human stem and progenitor cells, including embryonic stem cells differentiated towards hematopoietic cells, in transplant and post-transplant selection protocols. Included in this effort is a major focus on the use of noninvasive in vivo imaging technologies to detect small quantities of cells, which would provide a very powerful tool for monitoring the safety and efficiency of cell-based therapies in humans.