During the first week of October, a global community of scientists and supporters annually calls attention to continued advances in stem cell research to foster greater understanding about the importance of the work and the range of its potential applications for treating disease and injury.

The culmination is Stem Cell Awareness Day, on Oct. 3 this year. For the millions of people worldwide who suffer from incurable diseases and injuries, this is a time to celebrate scientific progress so far and look with hope toward what is yet to come.

UC Irvine has remained in the vanguard of this field through its robust stem cell research center in Sue & Bill Gross Hall: A CIRM Institute, one of the few facilities in the world dedicated exclusively to stem cell-based research, education and patient care. From Oct. 1 to 3, the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center will join in the outreach effort, hosting events for local students, the campus community and UCI supporters.

On Monday, Oct. 1, UCI’s stem cell scientists will hold an open house from 4 to 6 p.m. for more than 125 Orange County high school and community college students and teachers, allowing them to visit laboratories in Gross Hall and learn how stem cell research can help change the future of medicine. On Tuesday, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the center is offering tours of its cutting-edge facilities to UCI faculty, staff and students.

Capping the festivities is Wednesday’s daylong Stem Cell Research Symposium — held at Gross Hall — in which UCI faculty from biology, medicine and engineering will present basic and translational stem cell research findings on a number of disease-related topics.

“These events are opportunities to share our excitement with advances in stem cell research,” says Peter Donovan, professor of biological chemistry and director of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. “Our objective is to inform visitors about what’s going on and how they can participate to help transform medicine.”

He adds that research is progressing rapidly in the stem cell field, and UCI’s work is a great example of this momentum.

Center scientists Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings, in collaboration with StemCells Inc., conducted key studies for a neural stem cell therapy that’s being used at a Swiss hospital in the world’s first clinical trial of such a regimen for chronic spinal cord injury.

Earlier this year, two of three patients in the study reported increased sensation in previously paralyzed areas of no feeling after receiving injections of neural stem cells six months after their initial treatment.

UCI researchers also are sharing $57.3 million from the state’s stem cell research funding agency, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, to establish human clinical trials of stem cell therapies for cervical spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s disease and retinitis pigmentosa.

Involved in these three CIRM-supported projects are:

  • Anderson, Cummings and StemCells Inc., who received a $20 million commitment to fund the collection of data necessary to initiate human clinical trials in the U.S. for cervical spinal cord injury;
  • Frank LaFerla, Mathew Blurton-Jones and StemCells Inc., who reaped another $20 million to advance research using human neural stem cells to improve memory in people with Alzheimer’s disease; and
  • Dr. Henry Klassen and collaborators at UC Santa Barbara, UC Davis and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, who garnered $17.3 million to cultivate therapeutically potent retinal progenitor stem cells to treat the blinding effects of retinitis pigmentosa.

“There’s great excitement with being on the forefront of the stem cell research field,” Donovan says of his colleagues’ achievements. “Because of this, we’ve been able to recruit young faculty members who will take us well into the future.”

One of those young faculty members making a difference is Weian Zhao, assistant professor of pharmaceutical sciences and member of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center. He recently was recognized by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Technology Review as a TR35 honoree for 2012.

Each year since 1999, the publication has identified 35 innovators under the age of 35 who have great potential to transform the world. Their work spans biotechnology, computer and electronics hardware and software, energy, the Web and nanotechnology, among other emerging fields. Previous selectees include the founders of Tesla Motors, Google and Facebook.

Zhao, 32, was honored for his breakthrough work in creating sensors that can be attached to stem cells, letting researchers track how these cells migrate through living tissue. Zhao’s stem cell sensor technology may one day lead to more effective diagnostics and safer chemotherapy drug delivery systems.