UC Davis stem-cell agenda
The present and future of stem-cell research
Recently, the state appeals court decisively rejected a lawsuit against California’s stem-cell initiative, and the state Supreme Court looks likely to agree, setting the stage for the issuance of $200 million in bonds annually to finance the state’s stem-cell research program. This financing will make it the largest stem-cell program in the world.
So it seemed an appropriate time for SN&R to visit with Dr. Claire Pomeroy, vice chancellor of the UC Davis Health System and dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine—and one of 29 members of the powerful Independent Citizens Oversight Committee directing the state’s stem-cell program.
Last week in her office at the new, gleaming high-tech Medical Education Building, Pomeroy openly offered her views on stem-cell research and its prospects, the state program and the expanding stem-cell research underway at UC Davis. What follows is an edited excerpt from that interview.
Is there any proven stem-cell therapy yet?
When you hear about someone getting a bone-marrow transplant [to treat leukemia or lymphoma], they’re actually getting an adult stem-cell transplant. That’s really the only one that is an accepted standard of therapy at this point. The vast majority of the diseases that we hope stem cells, both adult and embryonic, will benefit are still in the laboratory, animal-model stage of research.
There are many news reports about people traveling abroad for supposed stem-cell therapies for heart disease and other conditions. What do you make of those reports?
I get very concerned when I hear about people traveling abroad for these therapies. We have emphasized that it is really important that we do the good scientific background work before these go into clinical practice, that we make sure all the ethical and scientific and clinical considerations are done ahead of time, and that people have true informed consent before they take one of these therapies. In many of these instances, there is not the oversight in international locations that we would expect here in the United States.
In some instances, I worry that people are paying large amounts of money for unproven therapies that could potentially have risks associated with them.
Have any of the reports about other methods for obtaining embryonic stem cells or their equivalent been accurate and offer a real alternative?
There are absolutely other techniques that are being explored. Whether they will prove to have the same potential for therapies that embryonic stem cells do is what the science has to answer. One of the most recent ones was, do amniotic cells have all of the characteristics of an embryonic stem cell? Do they have all of the potential of an embryonic stem cell? If they did, and we could get cells out of amniotic fluid, that would be obviously a much easier approach than having to go to embryonic stem cells.
In none of those cases have those been proven to have the true totipotency [or ability to become any cell type] of an embryonic stem cell. They also have not been disproven at this point. That’s why we have to do the science.
What’s the status of stem-cell research at UC Davis?
We’ve hired a new director of stem cell research, Dr. Jan Nolta. She was at Washington University in St. Louis. She brought her colleague here, Gerhard Bauer. Dr. Nolta’s work has been primarily in adult stem cells, to make new peripheral vascular cells. If there is inadequate blood flow to a leg, for example, could we use stem cells to redevelop those blood vessels and get blood flow? That’s her area of interest. Gerhard Bauer is building a Good Manufacturing Practice facility here so that it meets all of the standards.
We have a very big program in liver disease, trying to grow new liver cells because there’s such a shortage of livers for transplant. Dr. Mark Zern is leading that effort. For the families who have people waiting on a liver-transplant list, that would be very important to them. We have people actively working on heart cells.
We have a major program looking at use of stem cells in kidney disease. Alice Tarantal is one of our leading stem-cell researchers. Even before Prop. 71, she has received NIH funding to explore stem cells to look at pediatric diseases. Pediatric kidney disease is one of the main areas that she’s looking at—kidneys and some lung stuff. She’s doing some very exciting work in understanding the basic development of kidneys—normal development and abnormal development in children. If we understand the development, then where do the stem cells go wrong in kidney disease in children?
We’re very fortunate here to have the resource of the primate center because we can use the primate center to model what happens and to test therapies before we put them into human beings. Dr. Tarantal has been one of the national leaders in the use of those primate models to study things like pediatric kidney disease.
We have an Alzheimer’s disease center looking at how stem cells can help there. Looking at a certain kind of hearing loss is an area of expertise. We have a partnership with people at the Shriners Hospital, and they are working on neuro things because of the children with spinal-cord injury.
We’re the recipient of one of the training grants from the CIRM (California Institute of Regenerative Medicine), so we’re training the next generation. We received two state pilot grants and two comprehensive grants. We currently have an application in for a shared resource facility that will be located on the Davis campus.
At what stage is the new stem-cell facility?
We have a 100,000-square-foot building that we’re going to renovate, at the corner of Stockton and Broadway, that will be the UC Davis Stem Cell Institute. The first phase of that is currently underway. That’s going to contain that GMP facility, so that we can do things right from day one, with some animal facilities, as well as basic laboratory space. As we can identify funding, we have several additional phases of renovation planned for that building so that we can accommodate the growth of our stem-cell research program.
It will be another year and a half before it can actually open for business. Building a GMP facility has to be done very precisely. This building will have controlled air flow, controlled access. It will have very close monitoring so that we can ensure the scientific integrity of all of these studies. It controls the number of air passages through the filters. It’s called a “clean room.” That means people wear the appropriate protective clothing. We don’t bring the outside world into this room. It is a “clean room” so that anything in it doesn’t have any contaminants in it.
Do you think that we’ll see a payoff from stem-cell research in our lifetime?
I’m absolutely convinced that we will see payoffs in our lifetime. I don’t know where those payoffs will be. I don’t know what diseases they’ll be in. But I’m absolutely convinced that this is a new era of medicine that will benefit patients over the next years. People need to have realistic expectations about how fast this will happen. But it will happen in our lifetime.