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UCI to share $20 million stem cell research grant

The award will fund the first steps toward a clinical trial for cervical spinal injury therapy

by Caitlin AdamsPublished: July 30, 2012 03:00 PM

Associate professors Aileen Anderson and
Brian Cummings
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, last week designated $20 million in research funding for clinical trials to treat cervical, or neck-related, spinal cord injury. The state’s stem cell funding agency announced that the award will fund the data collection and preliminary steps prior to establishing human clinical trials.

"CIRM's support for UC Irvine's efforts to advance novel stem cell-based therapies for a variety of diseases is extremely gratifying," said Peter Donovan, director of the university's Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. "This latest award for spinal cord treatment holds great promise. We are delighted."

Two associate professors of physical medicine and rehabilitation from UCI's Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center will receive a share of the award. Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings demonstrated that transplanting human neural stem cells into rodents with thoracic spinal cord injury could restore mobility.

"Our therapeutic approach is based on the hypothesis that transplanted human neural stem cells integrate into the injured spinal cord to repair the protective myelin sheath and spinal circuitry," Anderson said. "Any therapy that can partially reverse some of the effects of spinal cord injury could substantially change the quality of life for patients by altering their dependence on assisted living and medical care."

The award is part of $150 million in funding authorized by CIRM last Thursday. Eight teams at five institutions throughout the state have received grants to advance stem cell projects, part of the institute’s mission to develop stem cell research into clinical cures.

The $20 million award is disbursed to Nobuko Uchida of StemCells Inc., a Newark, Calif.-based research and development company and frequent collaborator with the UCI Gross Center. StemCells Inc. developed the lines of neural stem cells used in Anderson and Cummings’ experiments.

Anderson and Cummings’ research is aimed at the nearly 1.3 million people in the U.S. who are living with spinal cord injuries. Such damage can lead to severe impairments, impacting an individual’s mobility, sensation and autonomic functions.

"That's crushing for anyone," Anderson said. "It's very tough for patients and their families. We believe stem cell therapies could provide significant functional recovery, improve quality of life and reduce the cost of care for those with spinal cord injury. That's our goal."

StemCells Inc. is a long-time research partner of Anderson and Cummings’ lab, collaborating on several joint projects relating to spinal cord injury. A current clinical trial of a neural stem cell therapy for chronic spinal cord injury is credited to teamwork between the Sue & Bill Gross Center researchers and StemCells Inc. This Phase I/II clinical trial continues to enroll volunteer subjects and recently reported positive safety data from its initial group of patients participating in the study.

"We are very encouraged by the preliminary results in these volunteers, and we are excited to receive CIRM funding to enable us to extend this approach to those with cervical injuries and to patients in the U.S.," Cummings said.

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