UC Berkeley stem cell project wins Award for Innovation


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Reg Kelly presented Aijun Wang with the award. Wang nearly missed the ceremony because of bridge traffic.

Aijun Wang and Zhenyu Tang have won the 2012 Deloitte QB3 Award for Innovation, a $10,000 prize that recognizes life science research at UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UCSF with the potential to improve human health.

Wang, an assistant professor of surgery at UC Davis, and formerly a postdoc in the lab of UC Berkeley professor Song Li for four years, accepted the award from QB3’s director Reg Kelly at a ceremony at UCSF Mission Bay on Thursday, October 18.

Wang barely made it to the ceremony, having driven from Davis and run into traffic on the Bay Bridge. Tang, according to Wang, is visiting hospitals in China to collect samples of arterial plaque for his ongoing work as a graduate student in Li’s lab.

Li nominated Wang and Tang for the award based on their discovery that stem cells, not smooth muscle cells as had previously been thought, are responsible for hardened arteries. Their work made national and international news earlier this year.

“The whole process of the award selection is fabulous and this award really means a lot to me,” Wang said. “It’s a great recognition of our research and it’s also going to be a booster for my new career as an assistant professor.”

Keynote speaker Laura Deming fired the ceremony with passion. She recalled how, as a 12-year-old in New Zealand, she had emailed UCSF professor Cynthia Kenyon, asking to visit her lab to learn about her research on aging. Deming’s family then moved to San Francisco so she could work in Kenyon’s lab. Now 18, and a Thiel Fellow, she has founded and runs a venture capital firm that backs companies creating cures for aging-related disease.

Deming said that scientists at UCSF and elsewhere in the Bay Area have an amazing opportunity right next door: Silicon Valley. The Valley is home to the world’s best coders, who are eager to make their names in world-changing ventures. UC scientists should partner with them, she said.

Michael Bassik, a postdoc in Jonathan Weissman’s lab at UCSF, had the unenviable task of following Deming. “I can’t bring a quarter of the energy you just saw,” he said. But he delivered a solid and accessible explanation of his joint work with postdoc Martin Kampmann (away at a conference in Germany) on mapping interactions in the human genome. Their work, he said, was already the basis for several efforts to develop multidrug therapies for challenging diseases.


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Laura Deming spoke to finalists Rand Miller and Ville Paavilainen afterward.

The path to the award ceremony began back in June, when UC faculty nominated 29 students, postdocs, and staff—or teams, the largest a six-person group nominated by UCSF professor Charles Chiu. Over the summer a jury of experts from academia, industry, and venture capital narrowed the field to five. The campus community voted to choose the winner October 1-12 on the QB3 Facebook page. (An active UC email address was required.) Exactly who would come out on top was not clear until the very end of the Oct 18 ceremony, when Kelly opened an envelope and read out the name of the winner.

Just before the winner was announced, Matthew Hudes of Deloitte played a short video that QB3 had made about the finalists. Bursts of laughter came from the audience at various points when, in the film, Bassik and Kampmann high-fived, and when the five-person team from Jack Taunton’s lab at UCSF examined molecular structures on a computer screen while wearing protective laser goggles.

“We never wear those goggles,” said graduate student Rand Miller later. “We just thought it would be funny to put them on.”

Read the Daily Californian story

The five finalists for the award, and their work in their own words:

  • Michael Bassik & Martin Kampmann, UCSF
    Research Topic: Genetic interactions in human cells
    Nominated By: Jonathan Weissman, UCSF
    The human genome sequence provides a “parts list” of the cell. Now, the challenge is to understand how these individual parts work together in health and disease. We have developed a technology platform that makes it possible for the first time to systematically explore the interactions between huge numbers of genes in human cells. This approach will reveal how the genetic background of patients determines whether a given drug will be effective or harmful. In addition, our approach will identify targets for combination therapies that synergize to kill cancer cells with minimal effects on healthy cells, and prevent drug resistance.
  • Anjan Debnath, UCSF
    Research Topic: A new drug lead for global diarrheal parasite
    Nominated By: Jim McKerrow, UCSF
    50 million people suffer annually from amebiasis, a diarrheal disease caused by Entamoeba histolytica. Current therapy has adverse side effects. Because amebiasis is a “neglected disease,” new drug development is not a priority for pharmaceutical companies. We developed an automated screen to identify new drugs for amebiasis and found auranofin, an FDA-approved drug, more efficacious than current therapy. Auranofin has now received an orphan drug status from the FDA for the treatment of amebiasis. Since auranofin is off-patent and has been in clinical use for 27 years, the cost and development time for this “repurposed drug” can be significantly reduced.
  • Shyam Krishnan, Jesse McFarland, Rand Miller, Ville Paavilainen & Iana Serafimova, UCSF
    Research Topic: Chemical technology for selective drug design
    Nominated By: Jack Taunton, UCSF
    Small molecule drugs are an invaluable part of nearly all human disease treatments. Unfortunately, the number of new drugs approved annually has stagnated despite increased investment. We have developed a new cysteine-targeting method that enables both the improvement of current small molecule therapeutics as well as the rapid development of novel drugs. Our approach can result in safer, more selective drugs that are active in vitro, in cells and in animal models. This technology is being used to develop cancer therapies, and we anticipate that it will be applied to the treatment of a wide range of other diseases.
  • Michelle Maalouf, UC Santa Cruz
    Research Topic: Using nanopipettes to create artificial stem cells
    Nominated By: Nader Pourmand, UC Santa Cruz
    I have shown that nanopipette technology potentially can be used to inject molecules into human skin cells to induce pluripotent stem cells on the single-cell level. These artificial stem cells, made from patients’ skin cells, can be used for disease treatment in the field of regenerative medicine without immune response concerns for the patient or ethical issues connected with obtaining stem cells. This technique to generate artificial stem cells far improves present-day methods which have a success rate of only 1-5%. Regenerative medicine is the key in shifting human disease as we know it and alleviating pain in millions of patients.
  • Zhenyu Tang and Aijun Wang, UC Berkeley
    Research Topic: Stem cells: the real culprit behind hardened arteries
    Nominated By: Song Li, UC Berkeley
    Cardiovascular diseases are a leading cause of death in many countries. In the past three decades, it is generally accepted that vascular diseases are mainly caused by smooth muscle cells. The work by this team challenges this dogma and found that a previously unknown type of stem cell is to blame for hardened arteries. It provides a brand new target for future vascular disease treatments and would revolutionize therapies for vascular diseases because stem cells rather than smooth muscle cells are the correct therapeutic target.