Salk scientists Leanne Jones and Lei Wang were awarded New Faculty Awards totaling 5.3 million by the governing board of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The funds will be split between both researchers over the next five years.
The New Faculty Awards are designed to encourage and foster the next generation of stem cell scientists in the critical early stages of their careers by supporting research across the full range of stem cell types – human and animal, adult and embryonic.
"One of the most exciting outcomes of this insightful move by CIRM is the funding of daring and innovative approaches to basic questions in stem cell biology in a variety of systems," says Leanne Jones, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Laboratory of Genetics and holder of the William Scandling Development Chair.
"Junior investigators are at a unique position in their careers where they are brimming with ideas and yet have very limited funds. Therefore, many of these ideas, usually the most risky ones, must be shelved in order to accommodate more predictable, less novel, lines of investigation to ensure palatable results, publications and future funding from more traditional sources," she says.
Jones uses the process of spermatogenesis in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster as a model system to establish paradigms for how stem cell behavior is controlled. In some tissues, including Drosophila gonads, cells that have already begun to specialize can revert or "de-differentiate" and assume stem cell properties, including the ability to self-renew.
Supported by the New Faculty Award ($2.69 million over five years), Jones seeks to uncover the mechanisms that are utilized to regulate the process of de-differentiation and to compare these to the mechanisms that endow stem cells with the ability to self-renew. De-differentiation of specialized cells could provide a "reservoir" of cells that could act to replace stem cells lost due to wounding or aging.
Lei Wang, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Chemical Biology and Proteomics Laboratory, pioneered a method to accommodate additional amino acids, the molecular building blocks of all proteins, in bacteria. Since then he developed a novel strategy to expand the natural repertoire of amino acids in mammalian cells, including neurons.
"The support from CIRM will enable us to develop new technologies for precise investigation of molecular events in stem cells," says Wang.
Specifically, Wang proposes to use his share of the CIRM funding ($2.64 million over five years) to introduce non-natural amino acids to identify unknown factors that govern the development of stem cells into dopamine neurons. The malfunction and withering of dopamine neurons is the underlying cause of Parkinson's disease. Uncovering the mechanisms that regulate the differentiation of embryonic stem cells into dopamine neurons may yield new drug targets and inspire novel preventative or therapeutic strategies for Parkinson's disease.