UC Davis gets $53 million in stem cell funds to study Huntington's, other diseases

The University of California, Davis, scored a major coup in stem cell funding with a $53 million award Thursday for research into Huntington's disease, limb ischemia and osteoporosis.

The grants were approved Thursday afternoon by CIRM the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. They are a major milestone for the university, which had received $73 million in past funding from the state agency.

"We're here to bring this new era of medicine to patients," UC Davis stem cell program director Jan Nolta said.

For Melissa Biliardi of Santa Maria, the vote symbolizes hope. Her son, James Birdsall, 32, was diagnosed four years ago with Huntington's disease. The degenerative brain disorder could prove fatal over the next 10 to 15 years. There is currently no cure or treatment, but with the grant, UC Davis researchers hope to deliver an effective therapy in four years.

"This is the most hope we've ever had for a cure or treatment," Biliardi said.

Her son suffers from involuntary movement and fatigue, all symptoms of the disease, and relies on a wheelchair to get around. Birdsall is one of 30,000 Americans living with the genetic disorder, according to Nolta. Another 150,000 are at risk, but many aren't diagnosed until their early 30s.

Created by voters in 2004, CIRM is financed by state bonds. The agency started with a $3 billion fund in 2007. Since then, it has doled out a quarter of its money about $900 million to various universities and private companies doing stem cell work in the state.

"We're driving opportunity here," CIRM President Alan Trounson said.

Huntington's is caused by toxic proteins that kill nerves in the brain. Limb ischemia causes blood clots that eventually lead to amputation. Osteoporosis is characterized by a loss in bone mass.

Together, the diseases afflict millions of Americans each year. UC Davis researchers said they are on the cusp of a major breakthrough to treating all three.

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UC Davis gets $53 million in stem cell funds to study Huntington's, other diseases

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