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

It’s been five years since Californians approved Proposition 71, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and authorized up to $3 billion for the emerging field of stem cell biology. CIRM has since awarded more than $1 billion to statewide entities for stem cell research, training and equipment, and it has developed policies on research, ethics, intellectual property and grant management.

The 29 members of CIRM’s governing board, the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee – including UC Irvine’s Susan Bryant, vice chancellor for research, and Oswald Steward, director of the Reeve-Irvine Research Center – met for the first time Dec. 17, 2004.

UCI ranks sixth in total CIRM funding, with 22 grants totaling $59.8 million. The awards support research by new and established leaders in the field; training for the next generation of stem cell scientists; and efforts to translate lab findings into clinical practice.

In 2010, thanks to a major-facilities grant from CIRM and donor generosity, UCI will open Sue & Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute. It will house the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center and serve as a hub for regenerative medicine in Southern California.

Over the past five years, UCI has accomplished much in the field. Highlights include:

  • November 2009: Charles Limoli’s study with rats finds that human embryonic stem cells could help people with learning and memory deficits after radiation treatment for brain tumors.
  • July 2009: Frank LaFerla and Mathew Blurton-Jones show for the first time that neural stem cells can rescue memory in mice with advanced Alzheimer’s disease.
  • January 2009: Hans Keirstead’s therapy allowing paralyzed rats to walk again becomes the world’s first embryonic stem cell treatment approved by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration for testing in humans. Two months later, Keirstead briefs Congress on the state of stem cell research, stressing the need for collaboration between academia and industry.
  • October 2008: UCI breaks ground on Sue & Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute.
  • March 2008: Peter Donovan, Leslie Lock and Kristi Hohenstein discover a dramatically better way to genetically manipulate human embryonic stem cells, making it easier for scientists to study and potentially treat thousands of disorders ranging from Huntington’s disease to muscular dystrophy and diabetes. The technique blends two existing cell-handling methods to improve cell survival rates and more efficiently insert DNA into cells.
  • December 2007: Lisa Flanagan, Ed Monuki and Abraham Lee develop a device that separates stem cells by their electrical charge on tiny, inch-long glass slides, making sorting quicker, easier and more cost-effective.
  • October 2007: Research by LaFerla, Blurton-Jones and Tritia Yamasaki is among the first to demonstrate that neural stem cells may help restore memory after brain damage.

CIRM funding highlights include:

  • April 2009: LaFerla and Blurton-Jones are awarded $3.6 million toward the development of an Alzheimer’s therapy involving human neural stem cells.
  • January 2009: Donovan and Ping Wang are recommended for a $3.3 million grant to enhance UCI’s stem cell training program, which equips tomorrow’s experts with the scientific background, techniques, ethics and clinical knowledge critical to the field. The grant is funded in July.
  • June 2008: Leslie Thompson receives nearly $1.4 million to develop new human stem cell lines for use in studying Huntington’s disease.
  • May 2008: UCI is awarded $27.2 million to build a new stem cell research facility.
  • December 2007: Andrew Putnam gets $2.1 million to study the effects of embryonic stem cells on heart disease.
  • March 2007: Doug Wallace receives $2.5 million to investigate the importance of mitochondria and mitochondrial DNA in the preparation of human embryonic stem cells for use in regenerative medicine. Donovan and Keirstead are awarded $2.5 million and $2.4 million, respectively, for their work.
  • February 2007: Thomas Lane, Vincent Procaccio, Brian Cummings, Grant MacGregor, Limoli and Kyoko Yokomori get a total of $3.5 million for projects intended to bring new ideas and scientists into the field of human embryonic stem cell research.
  • April 2006: UCI receives more than $674,000 to train students in the basic biology, ethics, policy issues and clinical applications of stem cell research.