USC physician-researchers receive $16 million grant from state stem cell agency

October 28, 2009

Physician-researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) received a nearly $16 million grant from the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) to fund the development of a stem cell-based treatment for age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of vision loss and blindness among the elderly.

Mark Humayun, M.D., Ph.D., professor of ophthalmology, cell and neurobiology, and biomedical engineering at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and David R. Hinton, M.D., Gavin S. Herbert Professor of Retinal Research and Professor of Pathology and Ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine, will lead the four-year study.

CIRM and two international partners awarded more than $250 million to 14 multidisciplinary teams of researchers in California, the UK and Canada to develop stem cell-based therapies for 11 diseases. The Disease Team Research Awards mark the first CIRM funding explicitly expected to result in a filing with the FDA to begin a clinical trial.

The grants received formal approval today from the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), the 29-member governing board of the institute, and were announced at a press conference held in Los Angeles.

USC faculty will also collaborate on grants awarded to other California institutions: Age-related macular degeneration (AMD) is a progressive disease that causes distortion in central vision and eventually leads to blindness. It is estimated that by 2020, more than 450,000 Californians will suffer from vision loss or blindness due to AMD. Effective treatment for the disease may be achieved by replacing damaged retinal pigment epithelium--the layer of cells at the back of the eye--and retinal cells with healthy ones derived from human embryonic stem cells, Humayun said.

"The funding from CIRM will be tremendously helpful and will accelerate our research towards achieving a near-term stem cell based therapy for AMD," he said.

Humayun was elected this month to the prestigious Institute of Medicine for his groundbreaking work to restore sight to the blind. Election to the Institute is considered one of the highest honors in the fields of health and medicine and recognizes individuals who have demonstrated outstanding professional achievement and commitment to service.

CIRM President Alan Trounson said the pace of the Disease Team projects stands in contrast to the decade or more that's usually required to reach clinical trials.

"Scientists have talked for years about the need to find ways to speed the pace of discovery. By encouraging applicants to form teams composed of the best researchers from around the world we think CIRM will set a new standard for how translational research should be funded," he said.
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CIRM was established when voters passed Proposition 71 in 2004 to borrow and spend $3 billion over 10 years to support stem cell research.

To date, USC faculty members working at the two main campuses and Childrens Hospital Los Angeles have secured $82.3 million in funding, ranking fourth in CIRM funding received behind Stanford University, the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California, San Francisco. USC is also part of the Southern California Stem Cell Scientific Collaboration (SC3), which is an agreement among six research institutions in Southern California allowing members to share training programs, scientific core facilities and expertise, and to team up on a wide range of research programs.

For more information on USC's stem cell programs, please visit http://stemcell.usc.edu.

University of Southern California

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