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Stem Cell Researchers Secure New Funding


UCR Scientists Receive Funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Two-year research projects of Michael Pirrung and Frank Sauer to contribute to the improvement of human health

(February 21, 2007)

Michael Pirrung (top) is a professor of chemistry and Frank Sauer (bottom) is an assistant professor of biochemistry at UCR.

Michael Pirrung (top) is a professor of chemistry and Frank Sauer (bottom) is an assistant professor of biochemistry at UCR.

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Two UC Riverside faculty members have each received funding from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, California's stem cell research initiative, to conduct research on the growth of human embryonic stem cells in the laboratory, and to explore whether a type of RNA -- a single-stranded molecule that translates genetic information -- can help stem cells differentiate into specific kinds of cells.

Michael Pirrung, a professor of chemistry and the holder of the UC Presidential Chair in Chemistry at UCR, will receive $543,987 for a two-year project entitled "Stem cell survival and differentiation through chemical genetics." The project will test whether chemical compounds similar to conventional pills are able to keep human embryonic stem cells growing and multiplying in the laboratory, thereby helping them become one of the specialized types of cells, like spinal cord cells, found in the human body.

Frank Sauer, an assistant professor of biochemistry, will receive $595,469 for a two-year project entitled "Non-coding RNA as tool for the active control of stem cell differentiation." The project will assess whether non-coding RNA can induce stem cell differentiation. Unlike traditional RNA, which is copied from DNA and translated into protein, noncoding RNA molecules are never translated into proteins, but induce cell identity.

Pirrung explained that neurotrophin, a protein originally discovered in the brain, can stimulate the growth of stem cells in culture. "But proteins typically are not what we'd like to use in large quantities in the lab because they are expensive," he added. "We will work on finding chemicals that mimic the action of neurotrophin. Compared to proteins, chemicals compounds are much easier and cheaper to make in a very pure form."

In his project, Sauer will use non-coding RNA to control the developmental identity of stem cells in order to form any desired kind of human cell. "We hope this will provide a tool to produce different cell types for use in biomedical research," he said.

The start date for both projects is April 1, 2007. Pirrung and Sauer are among 72 awardees for funding by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. Pirrung's project will be done in collaboration with UC Irvine's Peter Donovan, a professor of biological chemistry. Sauer will collaborate with Noboru Sato, an assistant professor of biochemistry at UCR.

UCR recently established a Stem Cell Biology Center to advance basic and translational stem cell research through synergistic integration of UCR researchers in multidisciplinary fields.

"The center focuses on understanding basic mechanisms that control stem cell functions by studying mammals and other organisms that give useful fundamental insight into how stem cells maintain pluripotency -- their ability to develop into many different cell types of the body -- or how they differentiate into adult cell types," said Prudence Talbot, director of the Stem Cell Biology Center. Her laboratory is developing methods to culture human embryonic stem cells in culture systems without animal products such as protein.

The Stem Cell Biology Center sponsors mentorship of students, offers graduate courses, and provides outreach to community organizations. Currently, the center is offering a seminar series in stem cell biology and is in the process of recruiting a new faculty member. Approximately 30 UCR researchers are members of the center.

Background information on stem cells:

Stem cells, which can transform themselves into many other tissue types, give rise to all the cells in the human body and hold the key to finding cures for many diseases, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, heart disease and diabetes. These master cells are found in the body at any age, acting as the root of all the cells that make up the body's tissues.

Human fetal tissue provides the best source of stem cells (embryonic stem cells). Stem cells also are found within adult organs (adult stem cells), but currently their potential to become other types of cells is limited.

When a stem cell divides, each new cell has the potential to either remain a stem cell or become a specialized cell, such as a muscle cell, a red blood cell, or a brain cell. Stem cells can theoretically divide without limit to replenish other cells as long as the person or animal is still alive. Scientists believe, therefore, that it should be possible to turn stem cells into a "repair kit" for the body.

Glossary (source: National Institutes of Health):

Differentiation -- The process whereby an undifferentiated embryonic cell acquires the features of a specialized cell such as a heart, liver, or muscle cell.

Embryo -- In humans, the developing organism from the time of fertilization until the end of the eighth week of gestation, when it is called a fetus.

Embryonic stem cells -- Primitive (undifferentiated) cells derived from a 5-day preimplantation embryo that have the potential to become a wide variety of specialized cell types.

Preimplantation -- With regard to an embryo, preimplantation means that the embryo has not yet implanted in the wall of the uterus.

Stem cells -- Cells with the ability to divide for indefinite periods in culture and to give rise to specialized cells.

Undifferentiated -- A cell that has not yet generated structures or manufactured proteins characteristic of a specialized cell type.

The University of California, Riverside (www.ucr.edu) is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment has exceeded 21,000 students. The campus opened a medical school in 2013 and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

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