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Local stem cell grants total $7M

Local researchers have been awarded grants totaling more than $7 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

Dr. Martin Marsala, a professor of anesthesiology at the UCSD School of Medicine, was awarded $1.3 million to develop methods to prolong the survival of therapeutic stem cells grafted to the central nervous system.

UCSD professor of biology Yang Xu, an immunologist, was awarded $1.2 million from the CIRM to explore improving the human immune system’s tolerance to grafted tissues derived from human embryonic stem cells.

Anjana Rao of LJIAI received $1,503,998 for a project focusing on reprogramming existing cells, such as skin or bone marrow cells, into regulatory T cells, which are the peacekeeping cells of the body. Because of their ability to suppress unwanted attacks on the body by cells of the immune system, regulatory T cells have immense clinical potential for alleviating autoimmune diseases, such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis or Crohn’s disease.

Nicholas Gascoigne, Ph.D., of the Scripps Research Institute received $1.7 million, and Jeanne Loring of the Scripps Research Institute, $1.3 million.

The project led by Gascoigne and Dianne McKay, Ph.D., both of the Department of Immunology and Microbial Science, is to identify molecules in bone marrow immunological stem cells that can help graft recipients to become “tolerant” to grafted tissue from another person. Immunological tolerance is the process that normally ensures that we do not mount an immunological response to our own tissues, so the idea is to try to trick the immune system into recognizing the graft tissue as self.

Loring’s project is designed around the ability of each person’s immune system to distinguish self from nonself and to reject transplants that are not recognized as belonging to that person. She and her team are developing methods for transplanting cells without rejection by re-educating the immune system so that it will recognize cells used for cell replacement therapy as self and not reject them.

The grants were among $25 million approved by the CIRM’s Independent Citizens’ Oversight Committee during its meeting in San Diego on June 22 for 19 transplantation immunology research projects.