UCSF receives tentative renewal of major stem cell training grant

By Jennifer O'Brien

Kevin Shannon, MD

UCSF has received tentative approval of a grant from the California Institute for Regeneration Medicine to continue its comprehensive stem cell training program, designed to help cultivate the next generation of stem cell scientists.

The funding for this grant and 14 other training grants tentatively approved today, January 30, 2009, by the Independent Citizen’s Oversight Committee, which oversees CIRM, is dependent on the future availability of funds, in light of the state’s financial condition, according to CIRM. The board’s future decision will depend on its assessment of whether the institute has sufficient funds and whether the grants are consistent with CIRM’s priorities at that time.

No timeline was set on when the grants will be funded. The board will reassess the feasibility of funding at its meeting on March 12, 2009.

The three-year UCSF training grant, totaling $3,899,912, will support six graduate students, six postdoctoral (PhD) fellows, and four clinician-scientists (MDs and/or PhD) at UCSF. It follows the three-year, $3,515,379.62 comprehensive training grant awarded by CIRM to UCSF in 2006. This grant also supported training for 16 graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and clinical fellows in stem cell research.

CIRM awarded three levels of awards – comprehensive, intermediate and specialized—accommodating trainees in programs at small and large non-profit institutions throughout California. UCSF received funding for a comprehensive award.

“The CIRM-funded stem cell training programs are playing a critical role in laying the foundation for the field,” says Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.

“Stem cell biology requires new ways of thinking, new tools and new skills. If we are to determine the potential of stem cells and other early-stage cells for treating disease, we need to prepare the brightest young stem cell scientists in the field and ensure that they are prepared to move basic research findings from the lab to the clinic.”

The UCSF training program includes courses in developmental and stem cell biology, embryology, human disease and transplantation, training in the rigorous ethics required to carry out basic research and regenerative medicine, and a mentored research program under the guidance of leading basic science and/or clinical stem cell investigators. It also involves seminars, journal clubs, stem cell symposia and scientific retreats.

“A goal of the program is to educate basic researchers about the scientific issues involved in translating discoveries into treatment strategies and to educate clinician-researchers about the basic science of stem cell research,” says the director of the program, Susan Fisher, PhD, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences and director of the UCSF Human Embryonic Stem Cell Center, part of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.

Kevin Shannon, MD

Co-director of the program is Kevin Shannon, MD, UCSF professor of pediatrics, who studies genes that normally regulate the growth of immature blood-forming cells that are mutated in leukemia. Shannon is also a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF.

The CIRM training grants will educate fellows from a variety of scientific backgrounds, including computation and molecular biology, nanotechnology, and clinical medicine.

The CIRM summary evaluation of the UCSF grant stated that the “reviewers considered the quality and design of the program to be excellent” and that “the quality of the environment, resources and faculty at the host institution was considered to be among the best in the nation.”

Evidence of the program’s impact to date can be seen in the productivity of the CIRM scholars during the last few years, says Kriegstein. He cites former UCSF neuroscience graduate student Laura Elias, PhD, who was a CIRM stem cell scholar in his lab while working toward her doctorate. Elias’ first scientific paper, of which she was first author, was published in 2007 in Nature, and was featured on the cover of the journal.

Elias discovered a mechanism that plays a key role in the migration of neural stem cells to the brain during embryonic development. This mechanism may also play an important role in other developmental processes and diseases, including cancer.

UCSF CIRM scholars will receive salary and benefits. In addition, they will receive research funds ($5,000 per year for predoctoral and $10,000 per year for postdoctoral and clinical fellows).

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care.

For more information about the CIRM training grants, see http://www.cirm.ca.gov/.

For more information about the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF, see http://irm.ucsf.edu/.