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California funds UCI stem cell sorting, tracking research
Lisa Flanagan and Orhan Nalcioglu recipients of CIRM grants
Irvine, Calif., December 11, 2008
Two UC Irvine scientists will receive grants totaling nearly $1.6 million to develop and advance stem cell sorting and tracking devices aimed at improving future therapies for people with brain and spinal cord damage, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, and other disorders.
The grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, awarded Wednesday, Dec. 10, to Lisa Flanagan and Orhan Nalcioglu, are intended to fund tools and technologies that overcome stem cell research roadblocks. CIRM’s governing board awarded 23 grants worth $19 million to 18 institutions statewide.
These awards bring total CIRM funding for UCI to $52.8 million, ranking it fourth statewide among recipient institutions.
“Our project is a little outside of the box and might be viewed as too risky by other funding agencies. This CIRM grant really makes it possible for us to move forward,” said Flanagan, assistant adjunct pathology and laboratory medicine professor. She will receive $872,000 over two years for her project.
Flanagan and her colleague Abe Lee, biomedical engineering professor, are perfecting a device that sorts stem cells by distinguishing their electrical properties. To create therapies, stem cells must be sorted and grouped based on the type of cell they will become, such as a neuron. High-purity cell populations decrease the chance of tumor formation or rejection by a person’s immune system.
Scientists currently use expensive, bulky equipment to sort cells, and they mark cells with antibodies that can damage them. Flanagan and Lee’s device – which fits on a 1-inch-long glass slide – is inexpensive and doesn’t require marking the cells with antibodies.
Unsorted cells placed on one end of the slide float in sugar water through a tiny channel past electrodes set to a particular frequency. At a certain frequency, stem cells destined to become a specific cell type will stick to the electrodes while other cells pass by. The cells that stick then can be removed and grouped together, potentially for use in a therapy.
The device has been shown to work with mouse stem cells. With the CIRM funding, the scientists will refine the device and test it with human cells.
“This proposal outlines an innovative approach for addressing a major roadblock in the field of stem cell biology,” states a CIRM working group review of the project. “Reviewers were extremely enthusiastic about the potential for this proposal to broadly impact stem cell research.”
Nalcioglu will receive $720,000 over two years to build a device that combines two existing techniques to better track stem cells once they are inside the body. Tracking cells is essential to determining whether they migrate to the right place and effectively treat the disorder.
The device will combine high-field MRI, which uses a magnetic field to visualize the structure and function of the body, and single photon emission computed tomography, an imaging technique using gamma rays. Both techniques currently are used on humans, but a device that combines the two does not yet exist.
“The combination of both would offer unsurpassed advantages over existing stem cell detection and tracking techniques,” said Nalcioglu, radiological sciences professor and Tu & Yuen Center for Functional Onco Imaging director.
CIRM working group reviewers were enthusiastic about the potential impact of this technology on stem cell research. “They believed the project to be feasible and were impressed by the quality of the preliminary data,” the review states.
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 for a four-story building dedicated to stem cell research. When finished in 2010, the building will house the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, dozens of laboratory-based and clinical researchers, a stem cell techniques course, a master’s program in biotechnology with an emphasis on stem cell research, and programs and activities for patients and public education.
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