Stem cells are tiny, microscopic in fact. Yet they hold immense power in their ability to become almost any kind of cell in the human body. This capacity for metamorphosis means that stem cells can potentially cure almost any kind of human ailment, making them a huge influencer of the future of medicine.
When a patient learns that their disease or injury is incurable, the news is devastating. Do they simply manage the debilitating symptoms as they continue to worsen? Scientists and physicians at UC San Diego Health recognize the promise of stem cells as a beacon of light for patients who have lost all hope. Yet making the leap from basic research to safe and effective treatments has been a long and winding journey.
South Dakota businessman Denny Sanford was determined to see that years of hard-earned knowledge discovered by UC San Diego researchers could be translated more quickly to people in need. He gave $30 million in 2008 for the development and construction of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine on campus. The facility, which opened in 2011, brings scientists together from UC San Diego and all across the Torrey Pines Mesa to collectively investigate and advance treatments for some of the most devastating health conditions.
But he didn’t stop there. In 2013, Sanford contributed an additional $100 million towards the creation of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center at UC San Diego Health. His gift, the second-largest the university had ever received, changed everything for the future of stem cell research at UC San Diego.
Clinical trials are an essential step in advancing science and ultimately creating drugs and therapies to treat incurable diseases and injuries. Until this point, scientists were confined to growing diseased cells in a laboratory or using animal models to test the effectiveness of stem cell therapies. With the launch of the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, decades of basic science research progressed to some of the first in-human stem cell therapy studies. The new infrastructure, which spans four clinical locations at UC San Diego, serves as a critical regional hub for conducting numerous and extensive clinical trials of stem cell-related treatments in humans.
In 2014, the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center was named one of three “alpha clinics” in the state, a highly-sought after designation by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) that came with an $8 million grant. The award served to accelerate three new stem-cell based clinical trials that were launched for spinal cord injury, Type 1 diabetes and chronic lymphocytic leukemia.
One patient involved in the study is a 26-year-old woman who had been paralyzed in a car accident. She underwent the first experimental procedure to test whether neural stem cells injected at the site of a spinal cord injury could replace severed or lost nerve connections and restore at least some motor and sensory function. If successful, the procedure could become a safe and viable therapy for many others who suffer from spinal cord injury.
And this is just the beginning. “What we are seeing after years of work is the rubber hitting the road,” said Lawrence Goldstein, PhD, distinguished professor in the departments of neuroscience and cellular and molecular medicine and director of both the UC San Diego Stem Cell Program and Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center. “These are three very ambitious and innovative trials. It speaks to the maturation of stem cell science that we’ve gotten to the point of testing these very real medical applications in people.”