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UC San Diego Gets Millions In Grants For Cancer, Zika Research

Above: The UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest will be one of the sites of picketing among staff members during a one-day walkout, Jan. 10, 2016.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awarded a pair of $2.1 million grants to the UC San Diego School of Medicine — one to advance studies of the Zika virus and the other for stem cell-related treatments for ovarian cancer and other malignancies, UC San Diego Health announced today.

While there is an ongoing, accelerated international effort to develop a preventive Zika vaccine, researchers say the need is also critical for medicine for already infected individuals, including pregnant women for whom prevention is no longer an option.

"There is urgent need to move as quickly as we can into clinical trials and, hopefully, find an effective treatment," said Dr. Alysson Muotri, a professor in the departments of pediatrics, and cellular and molecular medicine. "This is especially true of infected mothers where a Zika infection during the first trimester of pregnancy appears to pose the greatest risk of congenital microcephaly."

Muotri and her colleagues will investigate anti-viral drugs developed for other infectious diseases that might also work against Zika. The team already reports promising results, suggesting that some government-approved drugs may indeed be effective against the virus, according to the school.

"Of course, these are preliminary findings in cellular and animal models, but given the nature of the health crisis we are extremely encouraged," said Muotri, who is also director of the UC San Diego stem cell program.

"The CIRM grant represents a similar belief and hope in others," she said. "It is our plan and goal now to press ahead, to get our data vetted and validated, and to develop an effective treatment for Zika as quickly as possible."

Dr. Dan Kaufman is a professor of medicine in the Division of Regenerative Medicine. His laboratory will use their award to develop a standardized immunotherapy to treat ovarian and other cancers. Current therapies of the type are produced on a patient-specific basis.

According to UC San Diego Health, Kaufman's team has developed an efficient process for producing "natural killer" cells — normal immune system cells that are known to kill certain tumors and virally infected cells — from induced human pluripotent stem cells.

NK cells developed in that manner "can be targeted to tumors with high specificity, no off-target effects and without need for patient matching," said Kaufman, director of cell therapy at the UC San Diego School of Medicine.

He is collaborating with Karl Willert, associate professor in the Department of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, on the project.

They also hope to optimize the NK cells' ability to kill leukemia cells.

CIRM was created in 2004 by California voters with $3 billion in funding support to accelerate stem cell research and treatments. Since then, UC San Diego researchers have received at least 90 CIRM awards, totaling more than $169 million.

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