UC Merced Connect: Stem cell research gets $500,000 boost

UC Merced professor Kara McCloskey was recently awarded a highly competitive $500,000 grant to continue research in human stem cell biology, as part of an effort to enhance stem cell research in California.

In February, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine approved more than $27 million for Basic Biology V Awards, and McCloskey’s grant is included. The leads for this effort include Stanford University and the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

In her laboratory, McCloskey and her students are using stem cells to engineer cardiovascular tissues that could someday be used to repair damaged blood vessels or heart tissue.

Specifically, they are producing highly specialized cells that have not been the focus of much research to date – the endothelial cells found at the tips and in the stalks, including phalanx endothelial cells, of blood vessels and cells that could help repair a damaged heart.

“The phalanx cells exhibit anti-inflammatory properties, and the ones in the tips and stalks contribute to angiogenesis, the new growth of blood vessels,” said McCloskey, who teachers in the School of Engineering.

The two-year grant will help support her laboratory, including five undergrads, five graduate students and one post-doctoral scholar as they gather the data that takes them to the next step – building 3-D models of the vessels through which fluid can flow.

“Before implantation, we will first build and test the functional blood vessels to make sure they work properly,” she said.

Stem cell research has made huge strides since California made the research part of its constitutional right with the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004. But there are still issues with getting the human body to accept the new cells, even once the specialized cells are physically available to repair damaged and-or diseased cells and tissue.

Aluma credits new work to UC academic approach

Graduate school is a constant state of discovery, something UC Merced alumna Jackie Shay credits for her current passion: fungus.

Shay recently spent a month in the humid climes of Madagascar in search of species in the Marasmius genus, a tiny, relatively inconspicuous-looking mushroom that acts as a natural recycler of fallen leaves and branches.

“I went to several forests, got on my hands and knees, and collected these little guys,” said Shay, who’s working on her master’s in mycology, the study of fungi, at San Francisco State University.

Shay’s foray into fungus came in 2011 after reading an article on marine fungi, something she didn’t know even existed. Intrigued, Shay contacted Anthony Amend, a professor of botany at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, who was doing some major work in the field.

It turned out to be a pivotal moment in Shay’s life, and she found herself researching programs on the West Coast. And it might not have happened if not for her time at UC Merced, which she says creates an environment that encourages students to be bold in approaching professors about their research.

Shay, who graduated from UC Merced in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in biological sciences, said the university’s class structure also played an important role.

“One thing I loved about UC Merced was the integration of different fields,” she said. “Some classes were co-taught by different professors. I love that idea. That approach is not as widespread as it should be.”

That philosophy has manifested itself in her own field of study, which aside from mycology, includes ecology and systematics.

Shay plans to finish her master’s thesis next spring.