Scientists receive $5.7 million in new funding from state stem cell agency

- By Krista Conger

Four scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have been awarded a total of $5.7 million by the state stem cell agency to investigate the basic mechanisms of stem cell biology, cellular plasticity and differentiation.

The awards, which were announced today, were part of $37.7 million distributed to 27 investigators from nine institutions by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine in the third round of the agency’s Basic Biology Awards.

In addition, the organization’s governing board also voted to award $25 million to Geron Corp., based in Menlo Park, Calif., to fund the company’s ongoing FDA-approved clinical trial of the use of neural support cells derived from human embryonic stem cells to repair damage from spinal cord injury. This is the first human clinical trial of a stem cell-derived therapy funded by the agency.

In January, Stanford and Santa Clara Valley Medical Center became the third site approved to participate in Geron’s phase-1 clinical trial of the cells. The first patient was treated in October 2010 at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta; Stanford has not yet treated a patient. Up to 10 patients will be enrolled during the first phase of the trial at seven sites nationwide.

“Supporting the Geron trial is a landmark step for CIRM,” said board chair Robert Klein in a statement issued by the institute. “However, we must remember that there will be successes and interim failures as human trials proceed through the refinements necessary to achieve a successful human therapy. …When the people of California voted for Proposition 71, they did so with the hope of seeing new therapies for disabling diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes and other chronic diseases and injuries. By funding this trial, CIRM is taking a major step toward making that hope a reality. ”

Stanford scientists who each received $1.42 million Basic Biology Awards include:

  • Michael Clarke, MD, the Karel H. and Avice N. Beekhuis Professor in Cancer Biology, to study the role of a gene involved in the self-renewal of stem cells in Down syndrome and cancer.
  • Renee Reijo Pera, PhD, professor of obstetrics and gynecology and the director of Stanford’s Center for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and Education, to correlate time-lapse studies and single-cell molecular analysis to better understand human embryo development.
  • Joseph Wu, MD, PhD, associate professor of cardiovascular medicine and of radiology, to use induced pluripotent stem cells to study the molecular basis of familial hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a leading cause of cardiac death in young people.
  • Joanna Wysocka, PhD, assistant professor of developmental biology and of chemical and systems biology, to study how non-coding genetic regulatory regions called enhancers rapidly switch on the expression of genes to induce stem cell differentiation.

With these grants, Stanford has now received a total of about $192 million from CIRM — more than any other institution.

CIRM was established in November 2004 with the passage of Prop. 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act. The statewide ballot measure provided $3 billion in funding for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions and required setting up the agency, CIRM, to oversee allocation of the money.

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