With a new $8 million grant, UC Irvine will be able to translate more stem cell research into experimental therapies for complex conditions such as strokes, severe burns and cancer.

The university will join the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s statewide network of “Alpha Clinics,” where promising therapies are put through federally approved clinical trials and made available to patients, including those who may not have had access to such treatments before.

Funded by the grant from the institute, UCI’s new clinic will extend its reach by working with Children’s Hospital of Orange County, Long Beach’s Tibor Rubin VA Medical Center, and through a collaboration with UC Riverside, Inland-area facilities including Riverside Community Hospital and St. Bernardine Medical Center in San Bernardino, university officials said.

UCI also will work with health clinics in underserved communities to find patients for clinical trials, including people with severe disorders whose insurance may not cover new therapies or who don’t live near where clinical trials are typically held, said Dr. Daniela Bota, an oncologist specializing in brain tumors who will lead the UCI Alpha Clinic.

When applying for the funding, “we thought about how can we offer the treatments equally and fairly to as many people as possible,” she said. “In the future, hopefully we’ll be able to have more and more of those treatments in the communities where people live and work.”

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, or CIRM, was founded in 2004 after the state’s voters approved its creation and money to get it started; a $5.5 billion bond measure to continue funding the institute’s work was approved by voters in 2020.

The institute’s research and development of treatments focus on stem cells, which can renew themselves and repair damaged tissue – and they’re versatile, able to develop into different types of cells. The goal of the research and trials the agency funds is to heal injury and disease with stem cells, said Kevin McCormack, CIRM’s director of patient advocacy.

Doctors at UCI are working on a treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, which causes loss of vision. In a trial, stem cells injected into the backs of patients’ eyes allowed them to see light or restored much of their sight, McCormack said. In another test at UC Davis, several babies with spina bifida were treated in the womb and were later born without the gap at the base of their spines normally caused by the disease.

Bota said UCI will use the funding to attract more clinical trials, produce treatments and build research teams to work with patients and the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The new hospital UCI is building near its campus will include a cell processing lab and dedicated beds for patients receiving cell and gene therapies, she said.

Some of the therapies being explored include treatments for neurodegenerative disorders such as ALS and Duchenne muscular dystrophy and different types of cancers.

“This grant will enable UC Irvine to bring these therapies to people in the place where they live,” McCormack said. “They’ll have access to these therapies hopefully in ways they never did before.”

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