During the presidential campaign, we heard a lot about hope and change. So much so, in fact, that the words nearly got ground into meaninglessness.
That’s politics. But scientists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, are optimistic about the prospect of an actual change in federal policy: lifting the Bush administration’s limitations on federal funding for stem-cell research. Such a change could provide real hope for patients with a host of diseases.
It could also help up-and-coming stem-cell research programs at UCSB.
In recent weeks, the school secured $1.2 million in training grants from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. In 2007, it persuaded Jamie Thomson – the first researcher to isolate stem cells and often called “the father of stem-cell research” – to take up a part-time post at the school.
But UCSB’s programs are still relatively small players. Below the headlines, researchers such as Dennis Clegg have been investigating how stem cells might help cure diseases such as macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness in the U.S.
Macular degeneration causes a dark spot in the center of the vision field and affects some three in 10 people over the age of 75. Its cause isn’t known, but evidence suggests it’s the death of cells in the retinal pigment epithelium, or RPE, the layer of dark-colored cells in the back of the eye that makes an iris look black.
Those cells support and nourish the photoreceptor cells that let eyes see. Without them, it’s thought, photoreceptors – and vision – die.
Clegg, chair of UCSB’s molecular, cellular and developmental biology department, is growing RPE cells in a dish, working toward a treatment for untreatable macular degeneration.
“We’re interested in turning both adult and embryonic cells into ocular cells for the treatment of eye disease,” Clegg said. “We can grow human embryonic stem cells that for all intents and purposes look and act like an RPE cell. The idea is that the if we could replace the cells at the right time, then we can save the photoreceptors and restore vision.”