Three UCLA scientists were awarded state stem cell grants totaling $3.9 million today to fund investigations into the basic mechanisms underlying stem cell biology, cellular differentiation and cellular plasticity, the ability of adult stem cells to become cells other than their cell of origin.

The grants – 16 awarded in all totaling $28 million – represent an effort by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to build a foundation to support future research designed to take stem cell science from the laboratory bench into the clinic. Studies supported by these awards will foster the realization of the full potential of human stem cells and reprogrammed induced pluripotent cells for therapies and as tools for biomedical innovation.

To date, UCLA and its stem cell scientists have received 38 grants from CIRM totaling more than $125 million.

“It is very rewarding to see the breadth and quality of the basic science at UCLA’s stem cell center recognized with the awarding of these grants,” said Dr. Owen Witte, director of the UCLA Broad Stem Cell Research Center. “The science supported by these grants will propel future translational and clinical advances and hopefully result in new, more effective therapies for a host of diseases.”

Broad stem cell researchers receiving the basic biology grants include Dr. Benhur Lee, an associate professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics, who was awarded $1.37 million and whose grant received the highest score. Other UCLA recipients were Douglas Black, a professor of microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, who was awarded $1.35 million, and Yong Kim, an adjunct assistant professor of dentistry, who was awarded $1.25 million.

Lee’s grant will fund research into two molecules that belong to a large family of cell surface signaling molecules, the receptor tyrosine kinases, which mediate and regulate signaling cascades when interacting with each other. He will focus on how this interaction affects human embryonic stem cell fate, or what cells the embryonic stem cells eventually differentiate into. Understanding the regulation of this signaling axis could improve the culture of human embryonic stem cells and the efficiency of blood stem cell lineage differentiation.

Black’s grant will fund work examining the splicing process in normal human embryonic stem cells and how it is regulated when these cells differentiate into neuronal progenitor cells and neurons. The work could provide essential information on the biology of stem cells needed to move towards developing therapies for diseases such as spinal muscular atrophy. The project also will provide a system for drug discovery in the new field of splicing targeted therapeutics.

Kim’s grant will fund work based on his recent published findings that demonstrate the significance of the cell cycle regulatory molecule in embryonic stem cell self-renewal and differentiation. The work will focus on the molecular and cellular mechanisms of embryonic stem cell self-renewal and differentiation, and seek to unveil a novel mechanism in stem cell regulation. The research will advance the understanding in human embryonic stem cell biology and the potential utilization of molecular regulatory mechanisms for future regenerative therapies.

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