By Kim Lamb Gregory

 CI graduate students pursing a master’s degree in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics have a chance to conduct research in the cutting-edge field of stem cell sciences thanks to a more than $3 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

The $3.05 million grant will fund 10 paid internships each year for the next five years. Interns will spend the year doing stem cell research at a premier center like Cedars-Sinai, Stanford University, City of Hope, Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, Scripps Institute, Salk Institute and several schools in the University of California system, to name just some of 17 cooperating institutions.

Many graduate students who attended a Biotechnology and Bioinformatics mixer on Feb. 25 at the Sterling Hills Golf Club in Camarillo were eager to find out more about the internships.

Biotechnology and Bioinformatics graduate student Yogendra Verma, 23, was among several at the mixer who say they plan to apply for an internship. “My father has a pharmaceutical business in India that he wants to expand to include regenerative medicine,” said Verma, who hopes to work at Stanford if he wins an internship.

By far, the greatest promise revolves around customizing medicine for each patient individually. Researchers can already take cells from patients’ skin tissues and convert them to stem cells.

 James Dunn

The roughly 70 students and faculty who attended the mixer heard a presentation from Dennis Clegg, Ph.D., Founder and Co-Director of the UC Santa Barbara Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering. Clegg is conducting promising research into stem cell therapies to treat age-related macular degeneration and other diseases of the eye.

CI’s grant is part of a larger $40.13 million grant from CIRM called the Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Awards Program. The program is open to California universities or colleges that do not have a major stem cell research program.

Associate Professor of Biology Nitika Parmar, Ph.D., oversees the Master’s in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics degree program at CI. Parmar explained that a stem cell is a “blank slate” cell that can be coaxed to become any kind of cell  —  pancreatic, spinal, skin, blood, etc.

“Stem cell therapy holds much promise in the future for a variety of diseases including cancer, neurodegenerative and autoimmune diseases as well as diabetes,” Parmar said. “But this promise must be taken with a cautionary note as most stem cell therapies are at an early stage of research and development.”

Although we are years away from widespread use of stem cell therapies, stem cell research is a critical pathway to proving that they are safe and effective, she said.

The President and CEO of CIRM, C. Randal Mills, Ph.D., said the goal of the Bridges program is about creating a generation of stem cell scientists. “It’s not just a matter of giving them money, but also of giving them good mentors who can help train and guide them, of giving them meaningful engagement with patients and patient advocates, so they have a clear vision of the impact the work they are doing can have on people’s lives,” Mills said.

CI received two smaller grants from CIRM in 2009 and 2012 to help students pursue year-long internships with one of more than 150 different research laboratories at 10 research institutions.

Biotechnology and Bioinformatics graduate student James Dunn is among the students who is currently doing an internship at Cedars-Sinai, funded by the 2012 grant. The Simi Valley native has been researching how stem cells can help treat or maybe someday cure a neurodegenerative disorder called Huntington’s disease.

“By far, the greatest promise revolves around customizing medicine for each patient individually,” Dunn said. “Researchers can already take cells from patients’ skin tissues and convert them to stem cells. From there, they can be grown, manipulated or corrected for a disorder and then be planted back into the donor patient to treat an illness or repair tissues.”

Dunn plans to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular biology and continue working in this ground-breaking field of research.

 

© Spring 2016 / Volume 20 / Number 01 / Bi-annual