Kristina Bishard is an insulin-dependent diabetic who hopes to play a role in creating stem cell treatments that one day may cure her disease.
Bishard’s interest in stem cell research motivated the 22-year-old Cal Poly graduate student to enroll in the university’s Regenerative Medicine Program, which was started in 2009 and recently received a $2.6 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. The funding extends the program for five years.
The Cal Poly program provides graduates with the basic skills to pursue careers in regenerative medicine, developing stem cell therapies that may eventually treat or prevent serious or life-threatening health problems such as heart failure, diabetes, cancer and neurological diseases.
“The classes designed for this program are on another level,” Bishard said. “The equipment we get to use and the level of sophistication is so much more than what you have in undergraduate biology classes.”
The two-year Regenerative Medicine Program enrolls 10 graduate students per year who learn to apply stem cell research skills toward future careers in one of three fields: biomedical engineering, animal science or biology.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that have the ability to develop into specialized cells throughout the body, including in the blood, heart and brain. They’re important from a medical standpoint because they can regenerate and have the ability to repair damaged tissue, replacing damaged body parts with healthy tissue.
Cell-based therapies are so important because they can be used to treat diseases that were previously untreatable.
Trevor Cardinal, director of Cal Poly’s Regenerative Medicine Program
In their first year, students take a variety of courses in regenerative medicine, covering topics such as cell transplantation and biotherapeutics and the principles of tissue engineering. A microsurgery class involves working on mice.
In the second year, students complete internships with companies such as San Diego-based Viacyte, which is working on creating insulin producing cells that help control the body’s blood sugar levels. Another Cal Poly partner, San Diego-based company Organovo, test drugs on functional human tissues outside of the body.
“Cell-based therapies are so important because they can be used to treat diseases that were previously untreatable, such as decreasing the scar tissue that forms in the heart muscle following a heart attack, which generally leads to heart failure,” said Trevor Cardinal, the program’s director. “One of our partners, Capricor, is in clinical trials for a cell-based therapy to do just this.”
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine has given the Cal Poly program two three-year grants since it was established, but the program’s funding was in question before this year. CIRM gave Cal Poly a one-year extension before approving its five-year funding renewal.
“The grant will certainly bring stability,” Cardinal said. “Without CIRM support, (covering the costs) would be significant and require a lot of lead time.”
CIRM is funded by taxpayers through a 2004 ballot initiative supporting stem cell research. Cal Poly’s is one of 15 programs, including other California State University campuses, that receive money from CIRM.
The classes designed for this program are on another level.
Kristina Bishard, Cal Poly Regenerative Medicine student
The concept of stem cell research is much less controversial than it used to be, according to biology faculty member Elena Keeling, partly because some of the work can be done without using stem cells from human embryos, which has fueled a national ethical debate.
Keeling also said much of the work being done by companies in stem cell therapy is still in clinical stages and hasn’t yet received approval for marketability from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“Voters supported the idea of research that impacts lives,” Keeling said.
Keeling said the Cal Poly students are exposed to cutting-edge industry resources and highly skilled scientists during their internships. They hold monthly talks with Cal Poly faculty mentors, which help students narrow their focus, even sometimes changing their career paths. One graduate decided to go into regulatory work after working in a lab environment.
“It’s amazing to see them come back after a nine-month internship and how much they’ve learned and who they’ve become,” Keeling said. “They learn a ton in a short amount of time.”