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UC Irvine research benefits in latest round of state stem cell funding

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine names 2 UCI collaboration projects in latest round of grants

by Caitlin AdamsPublished: September 11, 2012 01:05 PM

Henry Klassen (top), Frank La Ferla and
Mathew Blurton-Jones (above)
Two UC Irvine stem cell research partnership projects will benefit from the latest round of grant disbursements awarded by the state’s stem cell research funding agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM. One project is focused on treating an inherited degenerative eye disease, and the other aims to treat the debilitating effects of Alzheimer’s.

The UCI scientists benefiting from the funding are part of collaborative teams working with individuals from other companies, universities and institutions on mutual projects and research goals.

The first grant, awarded to associate professor of ophthalmology Dr. Henry Klassen, disburses $17.3 million for his work at the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center into developing new stem cells that can treat the effects of retinitis pigmentosa, a form of inherited degenerative blindness.

"We believe it's possible to rejuvenate a clinically significant number of cones in the degenerating retina," Klassen said. "Our methods have been validated, and I'm optimistic that stem cell-based treatments can help restore fading vision in people with eye diseases."

Dr. Klassen’s project, in collaboration with UC Santa Barbara and the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, aims to create therapeutically potent retinal progenitor stem cells that can reverse the blindness caused by the disease and restore sight. The funding will allow Klassen and his team to develop these cells in pharmaceutically correct conditions, adhering to strict standards. The cells will then be tested to determine therapeutical potency.

StemCells Inc., a longtime UCI research partner, was named the recipient of a $20 million grant for a project exploring the use of neural stem cells to restore memory in Alzheimer’s patients. The Newark, Calif-.based company will work with UCI neurobiologists Frank La Ferla and Mathew Blurton-Jones from the university’s Institute for Memory Impairments and Neurological Disorders, or UCI MIND. The project will use StemCell Inc.’s proprietary human neural stem cells for its research.

"Our goal is to research ways to make memories last a lifetime, and we're excited to investigate the potential efficacy of stem cells for Alzheimer's disease," said LaFerla, director of UCI MIND and Chancellor's Professor and chair of neurobiology & behavior.

The funding will allow La Ferla and Blurton-Jones, working with StemCells Inc., to continue animal studies into the effects of neural stem cells in treating Alzheimer’s disease, following proof-of-concept work that demonstrated improved memory and synaptic function in animal studies.

The funds being granted are CIRM Disease Team Therapy Development Awards. The grants are distributed to teams engaged in qualifying stem cell research, aiming to speed up “collaborative translational research” and thus lead to human clinical trials.

"CIRM's support for UC Irvine's efforts to advance stem cell-based treatments for a variety of diseases is extremely gratifying," said Peter Donovan, director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. "Henry's work on retinitis pigmentosa and Frank and Mathew's on Alzheimer's disease hold great promise, and we are delighted that they have the support to see their work move toward the clinic."

The two grants mark the third time scientists at the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Institute have received CIRM funds this year. In July, Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings, researchers on a StemCells Inc. project, received part of a $20 million grant to collect data with the object of establishing human clinical trials for stem cell therapy to treat cervical spinal cord injuries. In May, immunologist Thomas Lane received a $4.8 million grant to study a stem cell treatment for multiple sclerosis.

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