Health & Medicine

UC Davis becomes key player in stem cell research

Arsenia Harrison, 68, of Elverta keeps up with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Zaria Stewart last week at Gibson Ranch County Park. Harrison faced possible amputation because of circulation problems in her leg, but she underwent experimental treatment at UC Davis that has left her able to walk, bike and ride horses.
Arsenia Harrison, 68, of Elverta keeps up with her 2-year-old granddaughter, Zaria Stewart last week at Gibson Ranch County Park. Harrison faced possible amputation because of circulation problems in her leg, but she underwent experimental treatment at UC Davis that has left her able to walk, bike and ride horses.

As a young girl in the 1960s, Jan Nolta traveled from her home in Willows to display her corn, grown for a 4-H project, at the California State Fair. Today, Nolta is back in the old state fair complex on Stockton Boulevard, where she oversees about 200 people working in a former exhibit building converted into a manufacturing facility for stem cells.

The UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures is bankrolled largely by taxpayers through Proposition 71, the 2004 state ballot initiative that authorized $3 billion in bonds to fund stem cell research.

Money from the state program, run by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, has catapulted UC Davis onto the national scene in stem cell research. The school has received $130 million over the past 11 years. It ranks fifth in terms of total awards from the agency, trailing only Stanford, UCLA, UC San Diego and UC San Francisco.

UC Davis has the only facility in Northern California to generate the high-quality stem cells needed for research, an operation supported by a $20 million CIRM grant. The school has conducted or has underway 10 stem cell clinical trials, the critical step before therapies are certified by the federal government for general use.

Jonathan Thomas, chairman of the state agency’s governing board, said in an email that UC Davis has “become a focal point of the effort to create a new biotech hub in the Sacramento area.”

Nolta heads the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures, as stem cell therapies are also known. A graduate of California State University, Sacramento, she was lured back to California in 2006 from her job as a professor at Washington University in St. Louis by the promise of stem cell funding.

“It was so exciting to see the state was going to invest in this kind of technology,” Nolta, 54, said in a telephone interview. “I really think that regenerative therapies will change the face of medicine and make some of what we do now seem barbaric in hindsight – like cracking open chests and amputating limbs.”

The stem cell field was tiny at the campus in 2004. Across the country, it was nearly moribund as a result of former President George W. Bush’s 2001 restrictions on funding for research involving human embryonic stem cells. Use of that particular kind of stem cell is controversial because it involves the destruction of human embryos within days of their initial development during an in vitro fertilization process in a laboratory.

Researchers were discouraged and outraged by Bush’s action. Some left the country for better opportunities. Then in 2004, California voters approved Proposition 71. The total price of the program to the state is expected to be $6 billion because of the interest costs.

The San Francisco-based agency is unlike any in state history. It operates without restrictions or oversight by the governor or the Legislature. The money flows directly to CIRM and bypasses the normal state budget process.

The measure’s backers attribute the excitement behind Proposition 71, which received 59 percent of the vote, to the expectation that human stem cells could lead to cures or therapies for major afflictions. The idea is that stem cells – be they adult stem cells, human embryonic stem cells or reprogrammed adult stem cells – can be used to regenerate ailing organs or assist in healing.

Before the creation of the stem cell agency, few would have envisioned today’s stem cell program at UC Davis. But Claire Pomeroy, former dean of the UC Davis medical school, saw an opportunity. She was on the 29-member governing board of the agency from the beginning along with representatives from nearly all the other potential recipient institutions.

Soon, UC Davis researchers began to appear at CIRM meetings. They made contacts with members of the CIRM team and listened and learned as the organization formed its funding plans. The school was virtually alone with that sort of presence at the agency’s early public meetings.

A higher profile

The diligence paid off along with well-framed applications, which were judged behind closed doors by out-of-state scientists, UC Davis snagged 46 awards, with a couple hitting $20 million each. In late March of this year, UC Davis researchers scored again. Diana Farmer, former surgeon-in-chief at UC San Francisco but now chair of surgery at Davis, was awarded $2.2 million to develop a placental stem cell therapy for spina bifida, a birth defect that can cause total paralysis. The therapy would be applied before the baby is born.

Roslyn Rivkah, a professor of dermatology, and Nolta received $5 million to develop a wound dressing that can applied to chronic wounds such as diabetic foot ulcers, which afflict 6 million people nationally.

Another $20 million grant targeted osteoporosis, which weakens bones as people age. About 40 percent of women and 13 percent of men over 50 are expected to suffer osteoporosis-related fractures during their lifetimes. Nancy Lane, professor of internal medicine, is leading the osteoporosis research.

Charles Casey, a spokesman for the UC Davis stem cell effort, said that in addition to the 10 clinical trials, another 18 are in the pipeline and seven of those are supported by the California stem cell agency.

Asked about the impact of CIRM on campus, Julie Freischlag, dean of the UC Davis medical school since early last year, said, “What’s so impressive about our stem cell grants is that they’re not just about stem cell research. These awards have also helped raise the profile of UC Davis nationally and internationally.”

That doesn’t mean the school has always succeeded in obtaining CIRM cash for its projects. In 2014, the agency’s reviewers rejected an $11 million UC Davis proposal to create a one-stop stem cell treatment center. A public appeal to its board by Nolta failed to reverse the decision.

Nonetheless, researchers like Paul Knoepfler, who also came to the campus partly because of CIRM funding opportunities, say the agency has provided a major and lasting boost for UC Davis. Knoepfler, who had a bout with prostate cancer in his 40s, is one of the rare researchers who also blogs about patient issues and stem cells as well as the science and considers himself a patient advocate.

Families push for funding

Patient advocates have played an important role in helping to support funding for the campus. Judy Roberson of Sacramento, president of the board of the Joseph P. Roberson Foundation for Huntington’s Disease, and others have been active in backing UC Davis applications and have appeared before the CIRM board regularly.

Roberson said her extended family has lost four members to the disease, has one member in the later stages of Huntington’s and 17 more at risk.

In an email, Roberson offered high praise for the UC Davis program, including Vicki Wheelock, a neurologist and head of the Huntington’s program at Davis. Wheelock and Nolta are the lead scientists on a $19 million CIRM-funded effort to develop a treatment that would infuse stem cells into the brains of Huntington’s disease patients.

The testimony of patients involved in the clinical trials also builds support. Arsenia Harrison of Elverta was facing possible amputation of her left leg because of grave circulation problems. Today, as a result of an experimental treatment, she is walking freely again, playing with her grandchildren and starting a new business.

“It was like a miracle for me,” she said in an interview.

The program has paid off in other ways. At Sacramento State, the CIRM-UC Davis connection has resulted in a new master’s degree program that has trained nearly 100 people for stem cell work. Nolta said all of them have landed good jobs or gone on to more academic studies.

The Sacramento State program, initially funded by the stem cell agency, carried special significance for Nolta. Her biology professor at the university, Laurel Heffernan, noted Nolta’s fondness for being in the lab and suggested she pursue research. Nolta said she was floored by the suggestion that she could make a living doing lab work.

When the ballot measure passed in 2004, national news outlets published stories that echoed the headlines of 1849, when news leaked out to the East Coast about the gold discovery at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma. Like the headlines from 166 years ago, the headlines 11 years ago also talked of a “gold rush,” but this time one that was based on biology and science – not minerals.

The stem cell agency, UC Davis and other CIRM-funded institutions have yet to produce a stem cell therapy that is approved for widespread use. But for Nolta and her colleagues, it all is about moving the science from “mice to men.” Their goal is to bring the same sort of therapeutic benefits that Arsenia Harrison has enjoyed to hundreds of thousands of people in California and around the world.

Jensen, a former Bee editor, is editor of the California Stem Cell Report ( and has followed the state stem cell agency since 2005.

Top five institutional recipients of money from state stem cell agency

Stanford University, $302 million

UCLA, $227 million

UC San Diego, $158 million

UC San Francisco, $133 million

UC Davis, $130 million