California’s stem cell agency approved two grants to UC Davis Health System researchers for their innovative work in regenerative medicine.

Kyriacos A. Athanasiou, distinguished professor of orthopaedic surgery and professor and chair of biomedical engineering, and the Child Family Professor of Engineering at UC Davis, is investigating the use of skin-derived stem cells to heal cartilage injuries and debilitating conditions of the knee such as osteoarthritis. W. Douglas Boyd, professor of surgery, plans to further refine a novel approach to treating cardiovascular injuries suffered during a heart attack by using stem cells and a tissue-like scaffold to repair cardiac damage. The pair received individual grants totaling approximately $6.6 million from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) governing board at its meeting today in San Francisco.

Athanasiou’s and Boyd’s multi-year grants were among the proposals submitted to CIRM for its third round of Early Translational Awards, which are intended to enable clinical therapies to be developed more rapidly.

“Both of these scientists are conducting exciting research that could have far-reaching implications in health care,” said Jan Nolta, director of the UC Davis Institute for Regenerative Cures and the university’s stem cell program director. “Dr. Athanasiou is bioengineering new cartilage that could have the same physiological integrity as the cartilage a person is born with. Dr. Boyd is developing a treatment that uses a paper-thin patch embedded with stem cells to harness their regenerative powers to repair damaged heart muscle.”

An expert in biomedical engineering, Athanasiou is focusing on developing a cellular therapy using stem cells created from an individual’s own skin — known as autologous skin-derived stem cells — which have shown great promise in animal models. He plans to use the new funding to conduct extensive toxicology and durability tests to determine the technique’s long-term safety and efficacy. Such tests are among the many steps needed to advance toward human clinical trials.

Cartilage is the slippery tissue that covers the ends of bones in joints, allowing bones to glide over each other and absorbing the shock of movement. Cartilage defects from injuries and lifelong wear and tear can eventually degenerate into osteoarthritis. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis and affects an estimated 27 million Americans over the age of 25.

“Our approach takes into consideration the regulatory pathway that a stem cell-based, cartilage repair product would take because we are focused on translating this technology to the clinic,” said Dr. Jerry Hu, a Co-Investigator on this grant who has helped to secure FDA approval for several musculoskeletal products.

“For anyone suffering from osteoarthritis or other debilitating cartilage conditions, Dr. Athanasiou’s goal of using stem cells to regenerate new tissue could have enormous quality-of-life and economic benefits,” said Nolta, who is the recipient of a prior translational grant from CIRM to develop potential therapies for Huntington’s disease . “Dr. Boyd’s work is equally promising because he’s using a bioengineered structure to encourage cardiac tissue repair, which could have important benefits in the treatment of heart disease.”