UCR researcher awarded $2.1M stem cell grant to study Alzheimer's disease

December 13, 2007

RIVERSIDE, Calif. - UC Riverside's Douglas Ethell, an assistant professor of biomedical sciences who studies how brain cells die in disorders such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, has been awarded a $2,120,833, five-year grant by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), California's stem cell research initiative.

The grant, called a New Faculty Award by CIRM, will fund Ethell's research on human embryonic stem cells for treating Alzheimer's disease, the most common cause of dementia in the elderly.

Approved Dec. 12 by the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee (ICOC), the governing board of CIRM, the grant is designed to encourage and foster the next generation of clinical and scientific leaders in stem cell research.

"Stem cell technology is the future of medicine, and CIRM is ensuring that California continues to play a leading role in developing this important technology," Ethell said. "This new investigator grant is a tremendous boost to my research as it will allow me to recruit talented students, postdoctoral researchers and technicians to work on stem cells in my lab. Moreover, the comprehensive nature of CIRM's funding commitment will allow me to spend less time writing grants and more time doing research."

Alzheimer's disease affects more than five million people in the United States. It has been estimated that the number of Alzheimer's disease patients in the country will grow to 13 million by 2050. Currently, there is no effective treatment or cure for the disease.

"In recent years it has become clear that the immune system can protect and maybe even reverse some of the effects of Alzheimer's disease," Ethell said. "Our research has shown that Alzheimer's responsive T cells can have beneficial effects in mouse models of the disease. This grant will allow us to take this project to the next level by using immune cells and neurons derived from human stem cells."

Ethell's proposed research will involve the use of human embryonic stem cells - cells that can become any kind of cell in the body - to develop a method that would stimulate the production of "beta-amyloid responsive T cells." These T cells coordinate immune responses that reduce brain levels of a toxic Alzheimer's-related molecule, called beta-amyloid peptide, thereby improving memory.

Specifically, Ethell's lab will stimulate the embryonic stem cells to become a certain kind of immune cell, called a dendritic cell. By engineering the stem cells to express certain proteins, his lab will attempt to coax the dendritic cells into activating Alzheimer's specific immune responses.

"This approach will allow us to determine the best strategies for turning on beneficial Alzheimer's immune responses in human patients," Ethell said. "An eventual therapeutic strategy for the disease may be isolating different kinds of stem cells from a patient to make dendritic cells that can then be given back to the same patient, which would turn the beneficial responses back on. Such a therapeutic approach could greatly reduce cognitive decline in Alzheimer's disease and alleviate some of the enormous emotional, social and financial burden caused by this disease."

CIRM's New Faculty Award will provide Ethell research-support for up to five years, creating a stable environment to build an innovative and robust stem cell research program. Most of the funding will be used to pay the salaries of laboratory personnel, purchase equipment, and set up new dedicated research space.

"Doug's receipt of the CIRM award is a wonderful personal achievement for him and is likewise wonderful for the Stem Cell Center and campus as a whole," said Prue Talbot, director of UCR's Stem Cell Center of which Ethell is a member. "He will introduce a new area of stem cell research to UCR. It will be very exciting to see his work unfold during the next five years."

Ethell's application for the grant was reviewed by a panel of scientific experts with diverse areas of expertise who are affiliated with institutions outside California, and patient advocates representing perspectives from a variety of diseases.

CIRM was established in 2004 with the passage of Proposition 71, the California Stem Cell Research and Cures Act. The statewide ballot measure provided $3 billion in funding for stem cell research at California universities and research institutions. Ethell's grant was one of 22 New Investigator grants approved for funding by the ICOC. The committee has now approved nearly $260 million for research grants at 22 California institutions.

In June 2007, CIRM awarded UCR a stem cell research facility grant. In February 2007, the institute gave grants to two UCR faculty members to conduct human embryonic stem cell research directed at improving human health.
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The University of California, Riverside is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment of about 17,000 is projected to grow to 21,000 students by 2010. The campus is planning a medical school and already has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Graduate Center. With an annual statewide economic impact of nearly $1 billion, UCR is actively shaping the region's future. To learn more, visit www.ucr.edu or call (951) UCR-NEWS.

University of California - Riverside

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