Two UC Davis School of Medicine researchers received funding for stem cell research from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) earlier last month.
Kit Lam, professor of medicine and chief of the division of oncology and hematology, and Alice Tarantal, professor of pediatrics and director of the Center of Excellence in Translational Human Stem Cell Research, were among two dozen scientists to receive research funding under the new CIRM Tools and Technologies Awards. Both were awarded $835,540 and $842,149 respectively to fund investigation for the next two years looking into new techniques and capabilities for stem cells or improve already existing techniques.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells found in either an embryo or among organs and tissues in adults. The potential of these cells lies in their unique properties. Unlike other cells found in the body, they do not have a specific function and can be manipulated to perform certain functions.
Lam’s research mostly involves discovering a way to track cancer cells in the human body.
“The main focus of my laboratory is to apply combinatorial chemistry to address a variety of biomedical problems,” said Lam in an e-mail. “These include the development of therapeutic and imaging agents against cancers, Alzheimer disease, and autoimmune diseases.”
Lam specifically uses the technique he developed as a junior faculty at the University of Arizona, the One-Bead-One-Compound (OBOC) combinatorial library method.
Lam plans on using this technique to discover synthetic molecules that will bind to the unique protein receptors on the surface of the stem cell. This will allow researchers to develop a tracer that can be used by other researchers such as Tarantal to track where the stem cell is in the body.
Building on Lam’s work, Tarantal’s research involves the next step -the process of tracking the stem cell with the use of positron emission tomography (PET). The PET scan requires a radioactive molecule, usually radioactive glucose, to be inserted into the body, which can be seen as the body breaks down the glucose to use as energy.
Her focus is on making the PET scanner sensitive to the point that it can detect the specially tagged stem cells and track them in the body.
Tarantal’s research is necessary if stem cells will be used as therapy for many different diseases in the near future.
“It is important to know where these [stem] cells go, what they are doing and whether the cell population is expanding as this will have a direct bearing on the success of a therapy,” said Simon Cherry, professor and chair of the department of biomedical engineering who will be working with Tarantal and the PET scanner. “Imaging is an ideal tool, as it can look non-invasively throughout the body to see these cells.”
Cherry believes that the PET scanner will play a vital role as a tracking technology for stem cells. There are two possibilities for trackers that can be used. One possibility is to tag the cells with some radioactive molecule that can be traced in the body. However, this will only last for a few days. The other, long-term option is to genetically modify the stem cell in order for it to express a so-called imaging reporter gene, which can make the cell somewhat radioactive once it recognizes certain molecules that were inserted into the body.
Not only are Tarantal and Lam part of the promising goal of using stem cells for treatment purpose, but UC Davis is also a leader in advancing research into the field. Supported by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures will be housed in the Sacramento campus, according to the UC Davis Medical Center’s website.
The institute plans on continuing the research into stem cells as possible treatments for various diseases including liver disease, blindness, HIV/AIDS, cancer and diabetes. UC Davis plans to launch a series of clinical trials once the facility is completed that focus on retinal occlusion, heart attacks, peripheral vascular disease and Huntington’s disease.
NICK MARKWITH can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.