The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) announced on January 17, 2012 that its governing board approved a $40 million initiative to fund one or two Stem Cell Genomics Centers of Excellence in California. CIRM was created by California’s Proposition 71, which authorized the state to issue $3 billion in grants over ten years to support biomedical research in support of regenerative medicine. Since its inception, CIRM has funded basic and translational research on all aspect of regenerative medicine. This is CIRM’s first targeted expansion into the study of the genetics of stem cell biology.

I spoke to Natalie DeWitt, Ph.D., Special Programs Officer of CIRM regarding the initiative and, in particular how the use of genomics will advance the goals of California’s initiative. Stem cells, she noted, are a good system for genetic studies because of the unique biology of the cells. For instance, stem cells can be differentiated to form specialized cell types useful for cell therapies and patient-specific disease modeling, e.g., with a particular type of stem cell – the iPS cell. Genomics technologies are important for understanding the molecular drivers of differentiation, and how genes interact with environmental conditions to produce disease states in specialized cell types. Genome characterization of cell lines destined for cell therapeutics will provide assurance that the cells are safe and do not have activated oncogenic pathways, or carry gene variants associated with disease.

Dr. DeWitt explained that CIRM’s hope is that the funded research will also assist in understanding the biology of certain cancers (for example leukemia and breast cancer, which are in part, are rooted in aberrant stem cell behavior). These cancer stem cells can drive tumor progression but are resistant to radiation and chemotherapy. Thus, she stated, finding the right therapy to treat these cancers will require an understanding of the genetics of these cells. New therapeutic targets and biomarkers are potential therapeutic applications of  this basic science.

The Stem Cell Genomics Centers of Excellence will bring together technology and expertise to streamline and maximize the value of genomic analysis. Dr. DeWitt explained that The Centers for Excellence can enhance and support access of stem-cell scientists to existing bioinformatics expertise and data mining technology, which are often bottlenecks to researchers working in this field.

To learn more about CIRM’s initiative, please see DeWitt et al. “Building Stem-Cell Genomics in California and Beyond” Nature Biotechnology 30:20-25 (2012).