Stem-Cell Hopes Get A Home At University of California Irvine

$80 million research center readies for cutting-edge work.

UC Irvine ( University of California at Irvine) is soon to open an $80 million stem-cell research center – a four -story, 100,000 square foot building where researchers will investigate using stem cells to help people with spinal cord injury as well as Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration and other illnesses.  The center’s director gives an early tour of the building.

The $80 million stem-cell research center at UC Irvine still has that new-building smell.  The offices and meeting rooms are barren of furniture, and the empty laboratory shelves and benches wait to be filled.

“It does look like an IKEA catalog doesn’t it?” Peter Donovan, a UCI stem-cell researcher who will serve as the center’s drector, said on a tour of the new building this week.

But soon after the formal dedication of the center May 14, researchers will begin moving into the four-story structure — one shaped as much by the politics of stem-cell science as the needs of the scientists themselves.  It is one of several such centers being built around the state and the first to be completed in Southern California.

“This building I think will become the hub of all stem-cell research on the UCI campus and allow us to provide better outreach to the public and the other institutions we collaborate with,” Donovan said.

Scientists have high hopes for the center, which will house about a dozen laboratories, a dozen researchers, and 120 students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians.

The scientists hope to test the recovery and measure effects on patients – including those who have suffered strokes or eye disorders such as macular degeneration — who were treated with stem cells at other facilities.

The center includes an enclosed room for eye patients, so light can be strictly controlled, and a large, open room for patients treated for spinal injuries, stroke, Parkinson’s and other neuromotor diseases.

“You need a lot of space to allow them to walk, to measure their movement, test their recover,” Donovan said.

Scientists at the center will also keep track of a much-anticipated study: Geron Corp.  plans to begin one of the first Food and Drug Administration-approved embryonic stem-cell clinical trials on human spinal-cord patients.

The trial will be based on pioneering work by UC Irvine neurobiologist Hans Keirstead, who will also have an office in the new center.

Stem cells have the capacity to transform into a variety of cell types, potentially regenerating cells damaged by Huntington’s disease, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other illnesses.  They might also one day restore movement to limbs paralyzed by spinal injuries.

Even after President Barack Obama’s well-publicized lifting of Bush-era restrictions on stem-cell research, some restrictions on federal funding are still in effect, Donovan said.

So scientists must rely largely on state money – $27.2 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine – and on the donors.  They include Laguna Beach’s Sue and Bill Gross, who provided a $10 million gift that attracted more funding.

Large spaces in the center can be used not only for scientific meetings but for fundraising events.

Source: The Orange County Register
Pat Brennan

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