Stem Cell Consortium

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News Date: 12/20/2007
Title: UC professor wins $1.5 million stem-cell grant

Merced Sun-Star

*Also appeared in the Fresno Bee

UC professor wins $1.5 million stem-cell grant

University is also in the running to get $7 million to build facility.

By Victor A. Patton

UC Merced professor wins $1.5 million stem cell grant

UC Merced assistant biology professor Jennifer Manilay received a doctorate from Harvard University.

UC Merced professor wins $1.5 million stem cell grant

It's not exactly winning the lottery, but in the world of stem-cell research, it's probably the next best thing.

Long-term, her research is aimed at combating diabetes, among other diseases.

The news is a definite plus for UC Merced's young stem-cell research program, which includes a multidisciplinary team of professors examining various dimensions of stem cells.

In addition, the university is also a candidate to receive a $7 million grant that would help it establish a center that would create microscopic devices to help researchers study stem cells.

With the grant funds, Manilay aims to investigate ways to enhance the immune system's ability receive transplanted tissue derived from embryonic stems cells -- without the body rejecting that tissue. Manilay believes that bone marrow (hematopoietic) stem cells derived from the same source as the transplanted tissue may be the key to making that process possible.

Manilay, who is a Harvard-educated immunologist, theorizes that the bone marrow stem cells transplanted into a patient can help the body accept the embryonic stem cell-derived transplanted tissue without it being attacked by the immune system, a process known as "immunological tolerance."

"The idea, really, is to try and induce (immunological) tolerance to the graft before the transplant," Manilay explained. "So you would transplant the hematopoietic cells first, allow the immune system of the patient to learn not to reject those (cells) and then transplant the tissue," Manilay said.

Manilay's research will be conducted using stem cells from mice. The funds from the grant will also be used to train graduate students, postdoctoral students and undergraduate students to serve as research assistants, in addition to supplies and travel expenses.

Manilay's research dovetails with clinical trials by researchers in Boston who have shown that transplanted hematopoietic stem cells can enhance transplantation acceptance in certain organ types. "So there is already proof of principle in human patients that it can work," Manilay said. "Obviously, it's still developing, and it's taken years to get to this point -- so all the more reason to start now with embryonic stem cell-derived tissues."

In the future, Manilay said stem cell-derived tissues could eventually remove the barriers that occur when a suitable donor is not available to make a transplant possible. "There are many labs across the country that are trying to understand how to induce different tissue types from embryonic stem cells, and there has been some success in vitro to derive certain types of tissues," Manilay said. "But long-term tolerance of embryonic stem cell-derived grafts is still at an early stage. And that's where I am hope to get in."

Manilay said she hopes to induce immunological tolerance to pancreatic cells (derived from embryonic stem cells) for treatment of diabetes. "That will be our first disease model, to see if we can transplant hematopoietic stem cells into diabetes-laden mice and then transplant pancreatic cells and see if we can help alleviate their diabetes," Manilay said.

She is not the first UC Merced professor to receive a grant from CIRM. Earlier this year Michelle Khine, an assistant professor of bioengineering, was granted $363,707 from CIRM to create devices to isolate stem cells to study how electrical and chemical "cues" can be introduced to a stem cell, to change it into a human heart cell.

Khine's research may one day help researchers differentiate stem cells into cells that can be used to replace damaged heart tissue.

Moreover, UC Merced is also in the running to receive a $7 million grant from CIRM. UC Merced officials recently received notice from CIRM that the university's proposal to create a stem cell instrumentation foundry has been recommended to pass the organization's first round of reviews.

The purpose of the instrumentation foundry would be to create customized microscopic "nanodevices" that would allow a researcher to gather information about the conditions and environments that cause stem cells to differentiate into other types of cells.

Maria Pallavicini, dean of UC Merced's School of Natural Sciences, said the center could help lead to breakthroughs in a variety of ailments, such as diabetes and neuro-degenerative diseases. "This stem cell instrumentation foundry is going to provide these nanodevices that are basically going to help an investigator understand why a stem cell makes a decision to go down a particular pathway," Pallavicini said. "(For example) under what type of situations will a stem cell become a cardiac cell, a bone marrow cell or a kidney cell? These types of devices will allow you to probe those cell decisions."

Pallavicini said the facility would be established using renovated space at the campus and would likely take about 18 months to develop. University officials expect to hear a decision about whether they will receive the grant by April 2008. UC Merced and three other universities are competing for the funds.

"The concept of the facility is one in that investigators all over California will be able to work with our faculty here (not only) in the design of experiments to probe single cell behavior but also in the development and design of microdevices that will allow them to answer questions in their own minds," Pallavicini said. "We are really looking to this stem cell instrumentation foundry to be a resource for California."

California voters in 2004 approved a ballot measure creating CIRM, which regulates stem cell research in addition to providing funding through grants and loans.