Written by CHARLES HINRIKSSON
Published September 4, 2008
UC Davis Health System researcher Paul S. Knoepfler was awarded over $2 million in grant money by the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) earlier this month for his research into the safe application of stem cells for medicinal procedures.
"This is extremely exciting, it's very competitive and a big honor," Knoepfler said. "It's definitely a major boost for my research and career, my whole lab is really excited and energized even more than we were before."
Knoepfler is currently researching how stem cells use their DNA, and is specifically investigating the role of a gene called Myc.
"[Myc's] a funny gene," Knoepfler said. "It's kind of like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it's really important for normal stem cell functions, but too much of it is linked to cancer while with too little of it, cells won't function properly."
Myc, which has been shown to cause tumors in mice, is found in pluripotent stem cells - a category of cells that are capable of producing copies of different cells. This property makes them essential in the field of regenerative medicine, but the Myc gene's cancer connection raises concerns about using the valuable cells.
"We're hoping with regenerative medicine that we can get stem cells to, for example, regenerate an injured part of the spinal cord of someone who has broken their back in a car accident," Knoepfler said. "Or stem cells could re-grow the damaged part of a person's heart after a heart attack. We want stem cells that can do these things but not cause cancer."
Knoepfler's research focuses on finding an alternative stem cell that doesn't include the Myc gene. He expects to solve the Myc problem within three years, and hopes to have the findings of his research become a part of clinical operations within five to 10 years.
"This is the fifth grant I've received," Knoepfler said. "And it's by far the largest, and it's a five-year grant - which is great because it helps stabilize the work that I'm doing, we know that we have this funding and we can push limits and do little bit more risky, cutting edge research."
The grant is a small portion of the $3 billion initiative California state voters approved in 2004, the biggest single funding source this country had ever seen for regenerative medicine.
"CIRM has awarded 9 grants to UC Davis totaling more than $35 million, with $20 million of that amount earmarked to support our new stem cell research facility in Sacramento," said Jan Nolta, director of the UCD stem cell program in an e-mail interview.
Next month, UCD will be officially beginning a $60 million construction project in Sacramento to build the UC Davis Institute of Regenerative Cures, which will serve as a hub for a large part of the university's work in regenerative medicine.
"Being able to attract talented researchers like Paul Knoepfler and Jan Nolta over the past few years clearly shows that the nation's scientific community recognizes UC Davis as a university that provides scientists with terrific support and the opportunities to make a difference," said Ann Bonham, executive associate dean for academic affairs, UC Davis School of Medicine.
CHARLES HINRIKSSON can be reached at