Funding opportunities

Funding Type: 
Research Training II
Grant Number: 
Principle Investigator: 
Funds requested: 
$1 202 913
Funding Recommendations: 
Grant approved: 
Public Abstract: 

We propose to continue our successful interdisciplinary Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering (CIRM Type III). The program will educate the next generation of stem cell researchers and provide the ethical background and research skills necessary for them to succeed in this rapidly moving, multifaceted field. The training grant will support research in two broad but interrelated areas: 1. Inquiries into the fundamental molecular biology of stem cell proliferation and differentiation, using powerful methods of modern molecular biology. 2. Bioengineering approaches will be used to develop novel biotechnologies for stem cell research, taking advantage of state of the art research and facilities. Postdoctoral and pre-doctoral trainees will be immersed in a highly interactive and supportive program that facilitates research and instruction in stem cell biology and engineering. Trainees will be involved in groundbreaking research that will solve key problems and help bring stem cell therapies into practice. We will continue very successful courses initiated in the previous funding period, in stem cell biology and stem cell ethics. The training environment will be enriched by seminars from visiting researchers, multiple journal clubs, internal research seminars, video conferencing to collaborating institutions, and attendance at national and international scientific meetings. In the current proposal, we have added additional PIs and expanded the training opportunities for CIRM scholars. Training will be strengthened with participation by CIRM scholars in the CIRM Bridges program with two nearby institutions, to provide mentoring and leadership experience. A new seminar series will be initiated that features novel, interdisciplinary biotechnologies, and instruction will be improved and expanded with new teaching technologies. The training program will be augmented by the considerable investment of the campus, including renovation of new facilities, funding of graduate and postdoctoral activities, and recruitment of new stem cell faculty members.

Statement of Benefit to California: 

California, like much of the United States, is facing a staggering challenge to its health care system. A perfect storm of soaring medical costs and the aging of the population augers poorly for the economic future of health care as we know it. Increasingly physicians are treating chronic, debilitating, and therefore expensive diseases with organ specific impairments. The demographic wave of the Baby Boomers will accelerate many of these issues. By 2020 they will average 64 years of age. As a result, the percentage of elderly in California is expected to grow from what was 14 percent in 1990 to 22 percent in 2030. Chronic degenerative diseases, which tend to afflict an aging population, represent a proportionally high percentage of individuals in California. Major innovative approaches are now, more than ever, an imperative. Our stem cell program, with its emphasis on enabling technologies, has the potential to make an impact upon many of these conditions. Degenerative diseases are those diseases caused by the loss or dysfunction of cells. Examples include cardiovascular disease, osteoarthritis, Parkinson’s disease, osteoporosis, diabetes, and macular degeneration. Among these conditions, stem cell work at our institution would leverage a strong existing program in macular degeneration, a condition that is just beginning to be addressed in the stem cell field. However, further research in molecular biology and engineering is needed to bring forward new therapies. There is a great need to train young scientists in stem cell biology and engineering to prime the engine of innovative research. We propose a Type III Training Program to educate the next generation of stem cell researchers, with an interdisciplinary focus on stem cell biology and engineering. This highly interactive mix holds a great deal of promise for the opening of stem biology to the bioengineering community, and the development of materials and devices for the stem cell field. This program will benefit the people and state of California by providing top quality scientific and ethical training to young researchers who will go on to develop cellular therapies for debilitating disease. In addition to the medical potential of stem cells and the spear heading of interdisciplinary work, our program will also bring economic benefits to the state. Multiple collaborations with industry have already emerged from our program in a very short time, stimulating growth of the California biotechnology industry.

Review Summary: 

This is a proposal to continue an interdisciplinary Training Program in Stem Cell Biology and Engineering. This proposed CIRM Type III training program proposes enrollment of 3 predoctoral and 3 postdoctoral trainees per year. Trainees will participate in research in two broad but interrelated areas: the fundamental molecular biology of stem cell proliferation and differentiation, and bioengineering approaches to develop novel biotechnologies for stem cell research. Compared to the last training period, this proposal shows that the program has added additional PIs and expanded the training opportunities for CIRM scholars. Mentoring and leadership will be strengthened by trainee participation in the CIRM Bridges program with two nearby institutions (assuming Bridges funding). A new seminar series will be initiated that features novel, interdisciplinary biotechnologies, and instruction will be improved and expanded with new teaching technologies. The training program will be augmented by considerable investment of the campus.

Reviewers were uniformly enthusiastic about this program, highlighting the complementary scope and focus of the research training, the quality of the program director and the mentors, the quality and upward trajectory of existing training programs and the commitment of the institution to stem cell research.

Reviewers considered a strength of the program to be its focus on two complementary areas of research for training - the fundamental biology of stem cell differentiation and proliferation and bioengineering approaches to stem cell research; one noted a minor concern that the training program falls somewhat short of fully integrating training activities across both research foci. The reviewers commented that the quality of the training environment is outstanding. They noted that the mentors are mostly senior faculty who have outstanding training records, ample funding and substantial research programs with established track records in stem cell biology. The physical resources are outstanding as well. The program has been enhanced by new building renovations, new faculty hires in stem cell biology, and membership in a regional stem cell collaborative program that promotes collaboration and shares resources and facilities with five other institutions. Pre-doctoral trainees are drawn from three PhD level graduate programs, all of which provide excellent preparation for the program. The training is supplemented with the required two stem cell courses developed during the initial funding period. Reviewers noted that the required Stem Cell Biology course has been extremely well- received as indicated by the student evaluations. All three participating departments also offer a variety of additional courses to supplement unique research needs of the trainees. There are also other standard training opportunities including a stem cell round table where trainees present their research with mentors participating; weekly laboratory group meetings, collaborative interdisciplinary group meetings; a new seminar series in “Stem Cell Biology and Biotechnology,” and a weekly stem cell journal club. Reviewers highlighted an element of this program to enhance student career skills as a particular strength of the program. In addition to improving oral presentations through common venues, trainees will also participate in a student-run weekly research series where they present and critique the others’ research. The student-run conference was lauded for both its contribution to training as well as fostering camaraderie. In addition, trainees can take a course that teaches the essentials of effective proposal writing. Collectively, these activities provide an important capstone experience that distinguishes this program from other similar Stem Cell Training Programs.

Reviewers considered the Program Director (PD) to be highly qualified to direct the training program and highlighted the PD’s outstanding training record, academic position as chair and co-director of relevant departments and programs and continued well-funded and productive research program. They noted that the Steering Committee consists of highly accomplished scientists and research mentors. The functions of the Steering Committee are standard and include program oversight, mentoring and advising trainees, and adjudicating any conflicts between mentors and trainees. A minor weakness is the lack of stated plans for evaluating the quality of faculty mentorship including criteria that will be used for dismissal from the program should faculty perform below expectations. The program leadership meets at appropriate intervals.

The reviewers noted that twenty one faculty mentors were identified representing a wide diversity of research backgrounds related to stem cell biology. All but two are well-established investigators with excellent training records, research programs relevant to stem cell biology, and extramural support. The other two are early career investigators who have promising careers who will partner with more senior faculty in mentoring trainees.

Reviewers found the quality and scope of the existing graduate training programs to be impressive. In particular, they commented that the graduate program in molecular and cellular biology appears to be on an upward trajectory as indicated by increases over the past five years in both the number of applicants as well as the acceptance rate of applicants. They noted that GPAs and GRE scores range from excellent to outstanding across all three graduate programs that provide trainees to the program. The reviewers did note that there was no mention of numbers of pre-doctoral or post-doctoral fellowships or of publications by pre-doctoral students or postdoctoral fellows or of retention rates. Reviewers commented that the applicant institution’s success in attracting a diverse student population was good, but far from outstanding. While the PD indicates that they are working to improve diversity, the outreach efforts are modest and include hosting undergraduate interns from an out-of-state institution over the summer and intensifying recruitment at predominately Hispanic institutions (without providing further detail). Reviewers did comment, however, on the recently established partnerships with two institutions that have submitted proposals for the CIRM Bridges program that, if funded, could be a potential recruitment tool for interns who are interested in further pursuing academic training. Plans for assessing graduate student performance are standard but lacking in specifics.

Stem cell research at the applicant institution is rapidly expanding as particularly evidenced by the growth in hESC research, with over 20 active researchers using the shared culture facility. The commitment of the institution to promoting stem cell research is outstanding as indicated by significant investments in matching funds, startup packages, infrastructure, operating budget support and salary support. In short, the stem cell biology programs at the institution appear to be growing exponentially with balanced contributions from the university and external funding programs. The caliber of the stem cell research is outstanding.