Deep in the labs on the east side of campus, a select few UCSB scientists are focusing their research on stem cells – probing the controversial technology for answers on how to treat currently untreatable diseases.

UCSB is relatively new to the subject and jumped on the wave shortly after the passage of Proposition 71 in 2004, which allowed $3 billion, spread over the next 10 years, to fund such research in California. In 2005, Chancellor Henry T. Yang began discussions about conducting stem cell research at UCSB. Since then, with the aid of private donations and federal grants, researchers have been able to join the other UC campuses that are currently investigating stem cells.

Stem cell researcher Dennis Clegg – molecular, cellular and developmental biology professor and chair – said following the passage of Prop 71, UCSB received a $1.3 million training grant for two graduate students and four postdoctoral fellows, including Minjounj Kye and Na Xu.

“They are both extremely talented biologists who will be working on some of those things, how to grow replacement brain cells and how to better understand the relationship between [different] cells,” said Kenneth Kosik, professor and co-director of the Neuroscience Research Institute.

UC Office of the President Media Coordinator Jennifer Ward said the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine dolls out the money from Prop 71, which is funded by bonds. This establishment will issue stem cell and other biomedical research grants derived from the $3 billion allotment over the next 10 years. CIRM gave out its first allowance in April 2006. It gave out $42 million to five UC campuses in March, but UCSB was not among those funded.

“Researchers are primarily responsible for getting funding,” Ward said. “When scientists decide they want to study a particular matter dealing with stem cells, they have to figure out a way to get the funding.”

While the researchers on campus have applied for several grants, Clegg said they still rely on private funding, although the grant they received for the training program has been put to good use.

“We have a couple of feed grants still pending, which are small grants to get people started in research,” Clegg said. “But our training program has been up and running for a year, [and it] funds salaries and supports students who are learning to do research.”

Clegg said an anonymous individual contributed a $400,000 gift toward stem cell research in Fall 2006.

“[The contribution has] been really helpful because we want to be able to do cutting edge stuff,” Clegg said. “So we really rely on private donations from individuals and companies.”

Stem cell research has recently been a hotly debated topic as parties on either side of the argument disagree on an undeveloped embryo’s “right to life.” Proponents of stem cell research say the investigation could uncover treatments for a variety of diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes. However, opponents argue that since the cells are extracted from embryos, the procedure inhibits a fetus’ potential for full development.

Kosik said the human embryonic stem cell research at UCSB addresses critical questions in the field, including how researchers can grow neurons, or brain cells, from the stem cells.

“This can have very important implications for treating diseases like Parkinson’s,” Kosik said. “We’re also interested in a type of stem cell that occurs inside of a tumor that makes cancer cells proliferate. We’re studying the relationship between cells that proliferate a lot.”

UCSB has already set up a shared lab to conduct stem cell research in the Biology-Science Institute building. It is not federally funded, Clegg said.

“Because UCSB does not have a medical school, we’re focusing on stem cell biology and engineering,” Clegg said. “Plans are to establish an institute that will include laboratories, so that investigators that are new can collaborate and get projects started.”

Clegg said UCSB offers graduate school classes related to the controversial field: one in stem cell biology and another in stem cell history.

James Thomson, a developmental scientist credited with the discovery of stem cells, will also visit the campus on May 1 to give a seminar, Clegg said.

“We are very excited about that,” Clegg said. “He will have a satellite lab here so he can collaborate here at UCSB.”