Stem Cells

Crump Institute researchers receive major stem cell grants


Two Crump Institute scientists have been awarded more than $1.8 million in state grants to develop innovative tools and technologies that will help overcome technical hurdles in advancing basic, translational and clinical stem cell research.

Michael Phelps, Norton Simon Professor and Crump Institute Director, will receive a two-year, $914,096 grant to develop ways to follow the fate and function of transplanted stem cells in patients using positron emission tomography (PET) — a technology Phelps developed.

Hsian-Rong Tseng, Crump Institute faculty member and an assistant professor of molecular and medical pharmacology, will receive a two-year, $914,096 grant to develop and validate a robotic microfluidic platform that will aid research with human pluripotent stem cells, which hold great potential in treating disease and repairing injury.

The grants were among 23 awarded Dec. 10 to researchers at 18 institutions by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the voter-created state agency that administers funding for stem cell research. Part of the institute's Tools and Technologies Awards, the grants support the development and evaluation of innovative tools and technologies that will help researchers overcome roadblocks in stem cell research. The awards were given to scientists to either create new tools and technologies or expand on existing tools or technologies that have shown promise.

One of the promises of stem cell science is that doctors will one day be able to isolate and modify a patient's stem cells and then inject them back into the patient to treat disease without risk of rejection by the body. A key challenge is how to monitor those cells once they are modified and returned to the body. Scientists need to be able to follow the transplanted cells to see if they survive, travel to areas of disease and reestablish activity to counteract disease. Phelps proposes to do this using PET scanning. Phelps, chair of the UCLA Department of Molecular and Medical Pharmacology, hopes to develop three ways to follow these cells with PET. In one, distinctive changes in functions inside of cells will be probed using radioactive molecules. The second approach will use antibodies to detect transplanted cells based on distinctive markers on their surface. The third approach marks the transplanted cells themselves using genes that will cause the cells to emit a signal detectable by PET.

"Tools for watching transplanted cells will provide highly valuable information that will refine research, accelerate development and, most importantly, allow physicians to directly monitor their activity and effects in patients," Phelps' grant proposal stated.

Tseng hopes to use a novel microfluidic platform to improve research using human pluripotent stem cells. Microfluidics allows the manipulation of tiny amounts of fluids at volumes a thousand times smaller than a tear drop. Tseng hopes to develop a robotic microfluidic platform that can perform chemical screening in search of ideal culture conditions in which the stem cells will self-renew and then differentiate into various cell types. The platform also would be used to screen for small molecules that facilitate single-cell expansion of human pluripotent stem cells.

To date, UCLA stem cell center scientists have successfully competed for 23 CIRM grants totaling nearly $53 million, 21 awarded for research projects and two awarded to fund the creation of new facilities for embryonic stem cell research.

UCLA's stem cell center was launched in 2005 with a UCLA commitment of $20 million over five years. A $20 million gift from the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation in 2007 resulted in the renaming of the center.