Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering

Dennis Clegg’s research with the new center furthers understanding of the role of stem cells (above).

Dennis Clegg’s research with the new center furthers understanding of the role of stem cells (above).

When California voters in 2004 bucked national leaders and approved an initiative to encourage research on stem cells, it allowed for the creation of UCSB’s Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering. The center has since won major funding for and become a primary contributor to leading-edge stem cell research.

Stem cells are capable of growing into any type of cell in the body, giving them the potential for curing an unlimited range of diseases. The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which was established by the initiative, is charged with providing more than $3 billion for stem cell research through 2014 at universities and other research institutions in California. Through early 2009, the new UCSB center received $8.5 million from CIRM, primarily for a training program for future stem cell researchers and to help build and operate a new stem cell laboratory on campus.

“UCSB’s Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering is engaged in new research on critical problems like regeneration or replacement of cells damaged by disease or injury, as well as understanding how it is that stem cells turn into other types of cells,” says Dennis Clegg, chair of the Department of Cellular, Molecular and Developmental Biology and co-director of the center for strategy and planning. UCSB mechanical engineer Tom Soh also is a co-director of the center, in the area of technology and engineering. Adds Clegg, “Additionally, researchers are studying how to grow stem cells so they can be put to use in developing a wide range of therapeutic applications, particularly in eye diseases like macular degeneration, the leading cause of new blindness in adults over the age of 60 in the United States.”

In June 2008, the center received $5.5 million from CIRM toward the new laboratory facilities, which will involve renovation of more than 10,000 square feet of space on three floors of the existing seven-story Biological Sciences II building in the biology corridor of campus. In 2005, CIRM provided $1.2 million for a stem cell biology training program for graduate students and postdoctoral scholars over three years.

In late 2008, CIRM granted the center $600,000 to develop new stem-cell based tools and technologies that will help provide a basis for future clinical applications. Then, in January 2009, CIRM awarded the center $1.2 million to continue the training program through 2011.

“This funding has been critical to the expansion of UCSB’s stem cell research efforts,” Clegg says.

The stem cell lab renovation will provide space for collaborative work with James Thomson, the nation’s pre-eminent researcher on stem cells and co-director of the center for biology. Thomson, who holds an adjunct professorship at UCSB, is often referred to as the “father” of stem cell research because he was the first to isolate embryonic stem cells. More recently, Thomson showed that human skin cells can be reprogrammed to a pluripotent state, meaning having the ability—like a stem cell—to become any type of cell.

The new lab will also accommodate two new faculty members, who will hold the Ruth Garland Chair, focusing on molecular mechanisms, and the Mellichamp Chair in bioengineering, and provide space for an innovative Deep Sequencing Core to house a new high-throughput DNA sequencing apparatus for genetic testing. Equipment rooms, meeting rooms, and offices will also be added. Completion is expected by June 2010.