Stem cells are basic human cells that can be grown and developed into body tissues, including those for spinal cords and organs.
In 2004, about 59% of California voters passed Proposition 71, which allocated about $3 billion in state funds for stem cell research, including embryonic stem cells.
Former President George W. Bush had limited embryonic stem cell research to existing strains and prohibited scientists from developing new ones from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization. California created CIRM to continue research in the field.
After six years and $1 billion assigned to institutions throughout the state, UCI will be the first to open, and the only to be built from the ground up for stem cell research.
“The great thing about it, it’ll bring all the researchers together in one place,” said Peter Donovan, director of the research center.
Instead of having UCI scientists and graduate students spread across campus buildings, they’ll be in one building where, by its design, it’ll foster a community feel through shared facilities and equipment.
The building’s namesake comes from a $10-million grant from Sue and Bill Gross, co-founder of Pacific Investment Management Co. in Newport Beach. The Grosses live in Laguna Beach.
The university used that money as leverage to get a $27.2-million gift from CIRM and combined it with a $13-million federal grant from the National Institutes of Health and funding from other private donors and the University of California.
At the institute, researchers will study a variety of stem cells, from embryonic to adult, and even the recently developed Pluripotent Stem Cells, which take skin cells and can change them back to stem cells with the person’s genetic code inside. Scientists hope if they can test drugs on cells with genetic information in them, they can study how they react to different drug treatments without harming a patient.
“They’ll absolutely revolutionize the way human’s are being treated,” Donovan said.
Stem cells are being studied throughout the country, but CIRM’s major goal is to take what’s learned in the lab and put it into clinical tests with actual patients, which he sees as the next step to actual treatments.
Stem cells can theoretically help treat people with muscular degenerative diseases, spinal chord injuries, diabetes or Alzheimer’s disease.