UC Davis gets $53 million in stem cell funds to study Huntington's, other diseases

Published: Friday, Jul. 27, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1B

The University of California, Davis, scored a major coup in stem cell funding with a $53 million award Thursday for research into Huntington's disease, limb ischemia and osteoporosis.

The grants were approved Thursday afternoon by CIRM – the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. They are a major milestone for the university, which had received $73 million in past funding from the state agency.

"We're here to bring this new era of medicine to patients," UC Davis stem cell program director Jan Nolta said.

For Melissa Biliardi of Santa Maria, the vote symbolizes hope. Her son, James Birdsall, 32, was diagnosed four years ago with Huntington's disease. The degenerative brain disorder could prove fatal over the next 10 to 15 years. There is currently no cure or treatment, but with the grant, UC Davis researchers hope to deliver an effective therapy in four years.

"This is the most hope we've ever had for a cure or treatment," Biliardi said.

Her son suffers from involuntary movement and fatigue, all symptoms of the disease, and relies on a wheelchair to get around. Birdsall is one of 30,000 Americans living with the genetic disorder, according to Nolta. Another 150,000 are at risk, but many aren't diagnosed until their early 30s.

Created by voters in 2004, CIRM is financed by state bonds. The agency started with a $3 billion fund in 2007. Since then, it has doled out a quarter of its money – about $900 million – to various universities and private companies doing stem cell work in the state.

"We're driving opportunity here," CIRM President Alan Trounson said.

Huntington's is caused by toxic proteins that kill nerves in the brain. Limb ischemia causes blood clots that eventually lead to amputation. Osteoporosis is characterized by a loss in bone mass.

Together, the diseases afflict millions of Americans each year. UC Davis researchers said they are on the cusp of a major breakthrough to treating all three.

Dr. Vicki Wheelock, a neurologist and clinical professor, will lead the Huntington's project. Since 1997, she has treated patients at UC Davis Medical Center and is excited about what her project will mean.

"This sort of research will lead us to treatment for other diseases, like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's," she said.

Wheelock's proposed therapy involves using special stem cells to invigorate dying nerves in the brain. Final testing will be conducted on animals, before her team can apply for a human clinical trial from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Wheelock points out the grants wouldn't be possible without the advocacy of patients and their families.

"They really rallied to secure the funding," she said. "This will be for the families."

Sacramento resident Katie Jackson has written a book about coping with Huntington's, based on her own experiences.

Her husband, Mike, struggles with the disease every day, taking medication to suppress the involuntary movements symptomatic of Huntington's. At a certain point, the medication becomes useless and the movements – including choking and falling – become fatal.

"My husband could die any day," Jackson said.

To Biliardi and Jackson, the grant represents another chance at life. "I think there's a lot of hope for my son," Biliardi said. "This can only help."

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Read more articles by Richard Chang

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