From the Director, Aileen J. Anderson

From the Director, Aileen J. Anderson

The UCI Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center (SCRC) has marked this year with a combination of exciting achievements and, like all of you, a set of historic challenges. Stem cell research across the state of California took a sudden downshift in March as the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic took off. However, the SCRC has remained strongly committed to supporting the efforts of our faculty to maintain the safety of our researchers and administrative staff, as well as those of UCI Health to support the community. With this in mind, critical research efforts have continued within SCRC laboratories, and include new funding from the UCI Clinical Research Acceleration and Facilitation Team (CRAFT)-COVID initiative to SCRC members Dr. Weian Zhao and Dr. Thomas Lane. In addition, our Alpha Stem Cell Clinic, part of the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network, is partnering with the City of Hope for a clinical study on the use of plasma as a potential treatment for COVID-19.

One thing that is special about an academic research university is that it reveals how interconnected we all are, and that has never been more true than with the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic. The faculty, students and staff of the SCRC focus most of their time working to understand how stem cells work and can be harnessed to repair things like diseases of the eye and brain, or to do things like heal the skin and target cancer stem cells. I hope that you will read more about the tremendous work by SCRC investigators in these areas in the next pages, and in our Year in Review report. But current events reveal an additional set of common goals that go beyond our every day mission of research and education. In this regard, the UCI campus has come together in tremendous ways to support the community. Developing new ventilator technologies and contact tracing apps, and in the case of the SCRC, pitching in with personnel and equipment to make the components needed to conduct COVID-19 testing here in Orange County. In May, I was grateful to be able to continue our community education and outreach efforts by bringing together colleagues from within the center along with a guest from the School of Medicine in an online community forum to share their expertise on infectious diseases, the status of COVID-19 testing and clinical trials as they relate to stem cell and regenerative medicine in California, and to discuss the ethics of opening up society in an ongoing pandemic. I am proud to be a member of an academic center that has this depth of experience to share, and of the efforts across UCI and in the SCRC to contribute to our local and global community.

The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has also revealed the importance of scientific research to society. Those of you that have attended the SCRC Community Lecture Series, whether online or in-person, have heard me talk about the long-term decline in national funding for science, and the critical role that Californians have played in stem cell research because of their vision in establishing the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM).

You have also heard me talk about the need for basic science to feed a discovery pipeline that can lead to clinical advances, and about the role of serendipity in that process. After all, if Thomas Brock, a National Science Foundation funded basic scientist (and his undergraduate student Hudson Freeze) had not sought to understand how bacteria could survive in the hot springs of Yellowstone National Park, the bacterium Thermus aquaticus would not have been discovered in 1969. Without the discovery of Thermus aquaticus, the world would not have the process called the Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), for which the Nobel Prize was awarded to Kary Mullis in 1993. Without PCR, we would not today be able to conduct COVID-19 testing, so critical for our next steps in this pandemic. And without the ability to conduct COVID-19 testing, the SCRC and the Alpha Stem Cell Clinic (ASCC) could not now be working on clinical trials with CIRM funding to use plasma from patients that have recovered from COVID-19 (convalescent plasma) to treat others affected by this disease. Research at all its levels, from basic science through testing in humans, is critical to making our world safer and better. And that is what the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center is all about.

Yours in health,

Aileen Anderson, PhD

Director, Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center
University of California, Irvine
Departments of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Anatomy and Neurobiology, and Neurological Surgery