Peter Donovan
Peter Donovan, left, co-director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, and Dr. Ping Wang, medicine professor, tentatively were approved for $3.3 million over three years to enhance a stem cell training program. Daniel A. Anderson / University Communications

The state today tentatively approved $3.3 million over three years to enhance UC Irvine’s stem cell training program, which teaches tomorrow’s experts the techniques, ethics and clinical knowledge critical to this fast-growing field.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s governing body held off on approving immediate funding to all training grants because of the state’s inability to sell bonds on the public market. But, according to CIRM, it tentatively approved grants it would like to fund when the financial situation resolves.

The decision further solidifies UCI’s standing as a major hub for stem cell research. When today’s grant is funded, total CIRM awards to UCI will equal about $56.2 million.

“We are excited to attract the best and brightest young people to UCI and Orange County,” said Peter Donovan, director of UCI’s training program and co-director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. “We will train leaders of the future – scientists who not only will strengthen academia, but will go into our community and get jobs in local industries and make them more competitive.”

This grant will fuel the expansion of UCI’s existing training program, making room for clinical researchers (alongside doctoral and postdoctoral scientists). Because they understand medical issues and principles of basic research, physician-scientists play a key role in treatment development.

“The number of physician-scientists has declined nationally over the last two decades, hindering important medical discoveries,” said Dr. Ping Wang, associate training program director and medicine professor. “With the training grant, UCI will develop more physician-scientists engaged in stem cell research.”

Participants in the training program, recruited from UCI laboratories and throughout Southern California, will participate in a two-week stem cell research boot camp.

First they will learn about ethics; practice advanced techniques in stem cell biology, DNA, RNA and protein analysis; and participate in team-building exercises critical to the success of multidisciplinary team science. Leslie Lock, biological chemistry assistant professor, then will lead a course in techniques such as stem cell isolation, culture and analysis. Lock received a CIRM grant in June 2007 to expand this course.

Trainees will attend monthly seminars on the latest developments in stem cell biology and related fields, including developmental biology, bioengineering and molecular biology. Mentors will teach the importance of multidisciplinary collaboration to the successful development of new disease treatments.

“Our program will train a new type of researcher who has the ability to cross disciplines,” Donovan said. “We need people who can understand basic biology, engineering, chemistry and how to treat human patients.”

A CIRM working group analysis said UCI’s proposal was well thought out: “The proposal was considered comprehensive for all the levels of training, with a program design that is both broad and of high quality. … Overall the application was deemed excellent, with a thoughtful approach to curriculum and mentorship, and strong leadership.”

UCI’s stem cell scientists are pioneers in regeneration, large-scale production of specialized cells with very high purity, and methods for treating damaged tissues.

UCI recently broke ground on a four-story building dedicated to stem cell research. When finished in 2010, it will house the stem cell center, dozens of laboratory-based and clinical researchers, the stem cell training course, a master’s program in biotechnology with an emphasis on stem cell research, and programs and activities for patients and public education.