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State stem cell agency funds work to break through research barriers

| 12 December 2008

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state's stem cell agency, this week awarded University of California, Berkeley, researchers two grants totaling $1.8 million to create new tools to speed the translation of basic stem cell research into clinical therapies.

Robert Tjian, professor of molecular and cell biology and newly appointed director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and David Schaffer, professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, will receive $918,000 to develop new molecular tools and novel technologies for high efficiency gene targeting in stem cells. Their proposal noted that gene targeting –introducing targeted changes into the DNA of cells – would have very broad implications for basic research. "For example, mutations could readily be introduced into genes to study their roles in stem cell propagation and differentiation, to analyze mechanisms of human disease, and to develop disease models to aid in creating new therapies," they wrote.

Steven M. Conolly, professor of bioengineering, will receive $882,430 to develop and test a new scanning method to track the location and viability of stem cells within the human body. According to Conolly's proposal, so-called Magnetic Particle Imaging "could solve one of the greatest obstacles to human stem cell therapy – the ability to track stem cells and see if the cells are thriving and becoming fully differentiated cells that can improve function of damaged organs."

These new grants, announced Dec. 10, bring the campus's total CIRM funding to more than $31 million, which includes money to build lab space for the Berkeley Stem Cell Center in the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, now under construction.

The two grants were among 23 grants to 18 institutions. These Tools and Technologies Awards are intended to support work that either creates new reagents and methods for stem cell research, or that scales up existing technologies –all designed to accelerate the development of critical therapies for patients with chronic diseases or injuries.

Six of the awards went to biotechnology companies, with the remainder to academic research institutions.

“These awards represent the entry of the biotechnology industry into CIRM-funded initiatives to accelerate progress,” said Alan Trounson, president of CIRM, in a prepared statement.

Robert Klein, chairman of the governing board, said in the same press release that supporting a mix of for-profit and not-for-profit organizations capitalizes on California’s leadership in both academic science and biotechnology.

“By funding grants in both the academic and biotech sectors, CIRM is building a strong network of individuals and organizations that are devoted to overcoming barriers in developing new treatments for debilitating diseases. Teaming biotech partners with not-for-profit research hospitals, institutions and universities provides a critical link in developing the therapies that patients so desperately need,” Klein said.