UCSB scientists hoping to find treatments for conditions ranging from elderly blindness to Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease recently received a significant boost to their efforts with the addition of two new stem cell research projects.

One program, the Southern California Stem Cell Scientific Collaboration, allows the university to conduct research with five other institutions, while another project will add a new stem cell research lab to the campus. According to UCSB Stem Cell Training Program Director Dennis Clegg, the collaboration, also known as SC3, is the product of 2004’s California Proposition 71, which established the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and allocated $300 million per year toward stem cell research over the next 10 years.

Overall, approximately 100 researchers are involved in the project, with 20 from UCSB, Clegg said. In addition, UCSB scientists now have an opportunity to do clinical research at other institutions. This option was previously unavailable due to UCSB’s lack of a medical school, Clegg said.

“We do excellent basic research and excellent bio-engineering, but we don’t do clinical,” Clegg said.

As part of the program, UCSB will now conduct research with the University of Southern California, Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, City of Hope, the California Institute of Technology and the House Ear Institute. UCSB Laboratory for Stem Cell Biology Director Sherry Hikita said the SC3 program will allow the university to more quickly advance in this field of study.

“SC3 provides synergistic combination of all expertise levels and exposure to different resources,” Hikita said. “There is an exchange of knowledge and an exchange of resources, which is extremely advantageous.”

Clegg also said UCSB recently received two grants from CIRM – $1.3 million for graduate and post-doctoral candidate training programs and $2.6 million for construction of a shared stem cell lab.

Meanwhile, James Thomson, a University of Wisconsin scientist will soon open a second lab at UCSB. Thomson recently discovered that skin cells can convert to stem cells with the addition of four genes. Clegg said this process allows stem cells to completely match other cells without any rejection from the body, while also eliminating ethical concerns typically associated with stem cell research.

“You take a skin cell, add four genes to make it a stem cell, add more factors, and it becomes a brain cell,” Clegg said.

For Clegg, the new lab and collaboration program will allow him to further progress with his research involving the conversion of human embryonic stem cells into eye cells for the treatment of eye diseases such as macular degeneration. The disease affects the retina and can cause blindness. Currently, four in 10 people over age 70 have this disease, he said.

To convert stem cells into eye cells, Clegg said he and his team must analyze the cells by looking at its genes and proteins and making sure it can carry out the functions of a normal eye cell.

“When stem cells grow, there’s a complex chemical path inside the cell, and we’d like to understand that,” Clegg said.

Hikita, who also studies eye treatments, said researchers must understand how stem cells differentiate into retinal pigment epithelium, which are single layer cells in the back of the eye that serve multiple functions such as removing waste products and supporting retinal neurons that allow people to process visual stimuli. In macular degeneration, RPE cells are either dysfunctional or they die, she said.

One way to cure macular degeneration is to transplant stem cells. However, Hikita said the process currently has a one percent success rate, which is why more studies are required.

Stem cells are unique because they differentiate into various types of specialized cells, ranging from those found in the eye to those found in the brain. Researchers hypothesize that doctors may use stem cells to regenerate damaged cells that cause a variety of ailments such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease.

Over the last decade, controversy has arisen over the use of the most durable stem cell, the embryonic stem cell. While many argue that the use of embryonic stem cells can help save millions who suffer from chronic diseases, others argue that their use is unethical due to the fact that the extraction process often destroys the embryo from which the cells are derived.