UCLA stem cell researcher receives grant from pediatric cancer foundation Bear Necessities

By Mirabai Vogt-James | Nov 05, 2019 Awards & Funding

Dr. Hanna Mikkola, a member of the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCLA, has received a $50,000 grant from Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation. The grant will fund Mikkola’s research to improve stem cell-based therapies for pediatric blood cancers.

Blood stem cells are found in the bone marrow; these cells can self-renew as well as create any type of blood cell. Bone marrow transplants have been used for decades to treat people with diseases of the blood or immune system. One complicating factor has always been that certain proteins in the donor’s and recipient’s cells must match so that the donor’s immune system doesn’t reject the transplant. But finding a perfect match can be difficult, and the process is risky for both donors and recipients.

“Bone marrow transplants are available for only a fraction of patients due to the lack of matched donors,” said Mikkola, who is also a professor of molecular, cell and developmental biology in the UCLA College and a member of the UCLA Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center. “Our overall goal is to find ways to generate a supply of blood stem cells from pluripotent stem cells in the lab; we hope this research will lead to the ability to create lab-generated blood stem cells that are a perfect match to the patient in need of a transplant.”

Pluripotent stem cells are capable of becoming any cell type in the human body. However, a big challenge is that when blood stem cells are created from pluripotent stem cells in the lab, they do not maintain the same self-renewing abilities of the blood stem cells found in the body.

Mikkola’s research has uncovered key factors – which are proteins expressed in a cell’s nucleus – that control the function of blood stem cells as they develop in the human embryo and self-renew in the bone marrow throughout a person’s life. Like spots or stripes help to easily identify leopards and tigers, the factors serve as highly specific markers that identify functional blood stem cells. Armed with this knowledge, Mikkola’s research team developed unique tools that enable them to easily visualize when the key factors are turned on in the lab-generated blood stem cells. The funds from Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation will support Mikkola’s efforts to refine her blood stem cell identification tools and pinpoint compounds that enable the creation and maintenance of healthy and functional blood stem cells in the lab.

Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation is a national organization dedicated to eliminating pediatric cancer and providing hope and support to those who are touched by it. According to the foundation, pediatric cancer is the number one cause of death by disease for children, yet less than 4% of cancer research dollars are allocated to children. 

“We are incredibly grateful to Bear Necessities Pediatric Cancer Foundation for funding our work,” said Mikkola. “Many of the compounds we plan on testing are already approved by the FDA, so our hope is that our research could move quickly towards clinical trials and ultimately improve the treatment of pediatric blood cancers.”