In 2004 when Proposition 71 made stem cell research a state constitutional right and designated funds for it, UC Irvine began planning for a center to expand its work in the field of regenerative medicine. Three years and $66.6 million later, a new building to house such research is about to open its doors.
This Friday, May 14, the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center will allow researchers at UCI to continue leading the way to end diseases like Alzheimer’s, multiple sclerosis, cancer and Parkinson’s disease along with treating spinal cord injuries.
The building is completely empty right now, but within a month, it will be bustling with over 120 researchers. Although the official move into the building starts during the week of May 17, it will most likely take a month for all of the equipment and faculty to be fully installed.
Among some of the UCI faculty making progress in the field of stem cell research are associate professor of Anatomy and Neurobiology Hans Keirstead, professor of Anatomy and Biology Oswald Steward and professor developmental and cell biology of Biological Chemistry Peter Donovan.
Keirstead has been working on the effect of stem cells on spinal cord injuries with associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation Aileen Anderson, investigating whether stem cells can restore movement in paralyzed rodents. Steward is doing similar research with spinal cord injuries with an emphasis on nerve regeneration, and Donovan jump-started the development of pluripotent stem cells from primordial germ cells in mice.
When asked what studies were most likely to be the first tested on human patients, Donovan said that patients with eye diseases, genetic disorders and spinal cord injuries may be able to use stem cells within six months to a year from now.
In addition to the benefits of making progress in the medical field, the new stem cell research facility is also expected to bring more funds to UC as a whole. Because research grants benefit not only the research itself but also the school, according to Donovan, for every dollar that he raises in donations or grants, the UC-system will get around 50 cents.
“It is more complicated than that because the money trickles through the Regents, then is taxed and then evenly distributed,” Donovan said. “This is not really fair because the schools who get the most donations actually are UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and UC Merced.”
The Center was created, in part, by the donors who also gave it its name: Bill Gross, the CIO of Newport Beach-based international investment firm, PIMCO, and his wife, Sue. The couple, who are already known for their generous donations to education and healthcare, gave a total of $10 million to support stem cell research at UCI, $2 million of which was donated toward the construction of the center.
The new center is also a CIRM (California Institute of Regenerative Medicine) Institute, meaning that through Proposition 71, it received a fair amount of funding — $27.2 million. Other than Sue and Bill Gross and the CIRM money, stem cell research at UCI has been granted money by several other donors including Thomas C.K. Yuen, Chairman and CEO of PRimeCell Therapeutics, Ed and Magdalena Chang, and even “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson and his wife.
However, while the amount of money being donated may seem excessive, it is necessary to meet the challenges presented by researching regenerative medicine.
According to Peter Donovan, the Co-Director of the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, the center requires donations because if it uses federal funding, there are many more limitations to the research.
For example, in federally-funded labs, there are only a select variety of stem cell lines that the labs are permitted to use.
However, if the lab is not funded with federal money, it is given more freedom of which lines it can use and what it can do with them, allowing more room for experimentation and more potential for developments.
“Surprisingly enough, it has been research has been made more difficult under President Obama,” Donovan said. “There were a list of stem cell lines that Bush had approved and once Obama was made President, they were taken-off of the list because he wanted to do further research.”
Along with the goal to raise more money for research, Donovan also discussed gaining more researchers from other universities to join the UCI stem cell researching team. The research center wants to bring in a variety of different people from different research areas in order to stimulate communication and discussion.
This is why amongst the huge labs and exam rooms, the new center also contains several conference rooms.
Donovan explained that the conference rooms were for events like informational meetings, fundraising functions, and discussion forums between researchers. Especially after other researchers are recruited to work at UCI, the conference rooms will benefit what Donovan expects to be close to 200 researchers working in the Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center.
“We need people to rub shoulders and learn from each other,” Donovan said. “What I really want is a coffee shop.”