Cal Poly received a $1.4 million Bridges to Stem Cell Research Award along with 10 other CSUs last March from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The money was used to create a specialization program for master’s students in stem cell research.
The Bridges Award was a way for the agency to distribute almost $3 billion in bond funding for research. The ultimate goal is to cure the incurable diseases or injuries such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, HIV/AIDS, blindness, diabetes, cancer and multiple sclerosis. The funding allows Cal Poly students to be a part of that goal.
The CIRM supports the largest amount of human embryonic and multi-use stem cell research in the country. The agency was created via the passage of Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act in 2004.
Offered to 10 students each year, the CIRM program has three main components: coursework, a nine-month research internship and a thesis project.
Trevor Cardinal, assistant professor in the biomedical engineering department, said it’s an opportunity to use the laboratory-intensive coursework at Cal Poly as well as the research infrastructure of other departments, through the internship.
“It really harnesses the expertise of both institutions involved,” Cardinal said.
Cal Poly’s stem cell research partners include Stanford, the Salk Institute, Scripps Institute, UC San Diego and Novocell (now called ViaCyte), a company that manufactures insulin-producing cells for diabetic patients. The students indicate their top choices for the internship based on how each institution aligns with their career goals and thesis project.
The coursework ranges from tissue engineering to biomedical imaging. In tissue engineering, the students learn aseptic techniques, fluorescent staining as well as preparing a tissue-engineered blood vessel, among other things. In introduction to biomedical imaging, which the students are taking currently, they learn the construction of microscopes and later design their own experiment.
“It’s putting them through a series of courses to give them the skills to do high-level stem cell research,” Cardinal said.
Cardinal teaches biotherapeutics in cell transplantation, a course designed to train students in working with animal models, specifically with peripheral artery disease. They talk about acquired, genetic and autoimmune diseases such as aschemic disease (reduced blood supply to the heart), muscular dystrophy (weakened muscle tissue) and diabetes respectively.
“They get a flavor of three broad classes of pathologies,” Cardinal said. “The students performed amazingly well.”
Aubrey Smith, biomedical engineering senior, is part of the four plus one MS in biomedical engineering, in which students receive a bachelor’s and master’s concurrently. She was accepted by the CIRM program last year.
Smith explains that one of the difficulties with this research is much of it starts out as two-dimensional, with just one element which goes in vivo to an animal. The lab experience at Cal Poly is a medium between the two.
“This is an attempt to bridge the gap,” Smith said. “We just want to mimic the environment that’s inside your body the best we can.”
Smith is currently testing intervascular devices in the imaging class. She wanted to be able to put two cell types on the blood vessel mimic she created in tissue engineering, endothethial cells and smooth muscle cells, since it’s difficult to tell the cells apart. She is using cell tracker to culture the cells separately. By putting two different color dyes, she can apply both cells on the same spot in the tissues and overlay the images to see how they differentiate.
Smith is currently working on her thesis, which she is trying to create a biological scaffold (a natural living biological matrix) from decellularized porcine (pig) arteries. First, she figured out how to remove the cells from the structural part of the animal tissue, leaving her with the collagen, protein and a “perfect scaffold.” She then tested the chemical properties, and is now trying to replace human cells (fibroblasts, smooth muscle cells and endothelial cells) back on to the tissue structure.
Smith will be heading to UC San Diego for her internship, where she will continue a tweaked version of her research at Cal Poly. She said it is more clinically applicable. According to Smith, the lab in San Diego has preliminary data that the stem cells can repair damaged tissues. Cardiomyocytes, the cells composing cardiac muscle, are hard to isolate and are hard to grow. The stem cells would be a good source and can be grown all naturally, she said. After they culture these cells they make them into a gel and inject it through a catheter into an infarcted heart (a heart that’s had a heart attack). They can then inject the polymer, the cells and the decellualarized material so it will form around the heart and create a unique innovative patch, Smith explained.
“If someone is having a heart attack … you could just inject this in and it would sit there and polymerize and become a little shell around the outside of your heart,” Smith said.
Smith will be a part of carrying out this pioneering research.
“There’s not really anyone out there that’s doing it in this method,” Smith said.
Anna McCann is also part of the CIRM program while pursuing an MS in biological sciences. She explains the students integrate their project into their internship and bring back what they learn to improve the Cal Poly campus. She is working at Scripps this summer to create a neruological disease model of ALS (amyothropic lateral sclerosis), a degenerative motor neuron disease. They will use florescent tags to follow the differentiation of stem cells into neural cells, with the mutation engineered in.
“The stem cell field is such an emerging field, particularly with the new administration and with the establishment of CIRM,” McCann said. “It’s important for Cal Poly to grow with the change. It gives us that cutting edge. It’s all about working toward one common goal.”
McCann said she felt stem cells have the most potential in regenerative medicine, but believes they are still far away from clinical application. Smith says she believes umbilical cord blood will be next to be used after bone marrow in the clinical setting, because it’s such a good source of stem cells.
“It’s not everything the media has made it up to be,” Smith said about embryonic stem cells. “We use embryos that have never even been in a human. We don’t take aborted fetuses and dumpster dive and take the cells off of them.”
“There’s still a number of restrictions too,” McCann said. “It’s not as unrestricted as people think.”
Cardinal explains there are huge numbers of therapies in pre-clinical settings, but in order to bring those to the clinical setting, they need to commercialize the technologies and create a clinically-trained workforce.
“(These graduate students) can play a strong roll in starting to fill out the industry for stem cells,” Cardinal said.