University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

UCSF Launches Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology

By Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Services | September 12, 2005

Key faculty recruits, stem cell training program also announced

Capitalizing on the strength of its research and clinical enterprise, UCSF is launching the Institute for Stem Cell and Tissue Biology, providing a framework for close collaboration among investigators from the University's Schools of Dentistry, Medicine, Nursing and Pharmacy.

The Institute unites under one umbrella two major UCSF programs exploring the nature of stem cells and other early-stage cells - the UCSF Program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology and the UCSF Program in Craniofacial and Mesenchymal Biology.

UCSF Chancellor J. Michael Bishop, MD, says the Institute creates an integrated force that will enable UCSF scientists to maximize their ability to gain fundamental information about human development, with an eye toward illuminating and treating a broad range of diseases and disorders.

UCSF investigators in some 60 laboratories are studying stem cells and related cells of humans, mice, zebra fish and worms, exploring their role in nearly every organ of the body, including the brain, heart, pancreas, liver, blood, bone marrow, skin, prostate, ovaries and testes.

The scientists are studying the cells to identify the genetic missteps that cause diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) and some cancers, and that account for some cases of birth defects and infertility. They also are conducting studies aimed at using the cells to replace or restore tissues damaged in conditions including diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury, osteoporosis, arthritis and craniofacial defects.

"Our goal is to continue and expand the basic research that ultimately could lead to therapeutic strategies," says Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, who directs the Institute. "The Institute provides the framework that will allow us to drive the exploration toward investigations with our clinical-research colleagues at UCSF Medical Center, which has the medical and intellectual infrastructure to translate discoveries into therapeutic strategies."

Kriegstein, a prominent neural stem cell researcher, was recruited from Columbia University in 2004 to lead UCSF's Program in Developmental and Stem Cell Biology. The Program includes the UCSF Human Embryonic Stem Cell Center, in which scientists have created numerous new lines of human embryonic stem cells for study and established a repository for human embryonic stem cells.

The Institute is co-directed by Rik Derynck, PhD, who directs the Program in Craniofacial and Mesenchymal Biology. This program focuses on the development and biology of bone, cartilage, muscle, fat and connective tissue, and on mesenchymal stem cells, which, depending on their location in the body, give rise to these tissues. Researchers are exploring how abnormalities in mesenchymal stem cells give rise to the many craniofacial (cranium and face) and skeletal anomalies in humans. Scientists also are investigating the possibility of turning mesenchymal cells that have begun to specialize as fat cells into other tissues, such as bone and muscle. The goal of this research is to treat craniofacial defects, osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, as well as bone that is destroyed in some cancers.

"The Institute draws together two programs that are asking interrelated questions," Derynck says. "The discoveries we've made in the mesenchymal biology program indicate that there is much to learn about the potential of cells that are no longer stem cells -- such as early-stage fat cells -- to treat disease."

Key faculty recruits

The establishment of the Institute reflects the growth and integration of UCSF's program during the last year. Recently, the University has recruited three premier young stem cell scientists to the faculty, including:

  • Robert Blelloch, MD, PhD, from the laboratory of Rudolph Jaenisch, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research

  • Holger Willenbring, MD, from the laboratory of Markus Grompe, at Oregon Health & Science University

  • Emmanuelle Passegué, PhD, from the laboratory of Irving L. Weissman, of Stanford University School of Medicine

Read more at Jennifer O'Brien, UCSF News Services