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UC Davis Magazine

Volume 30 · Number 4 · Summer 2013

The Campaign for UC Davis: Creating hopeful futures

Kids grappling with asthma, pediatric leukemia patients battling cancer with radiation and chemotherapy, paralyzed children struggling to perform everyday tasks — these are just some of the young lives that innovative UC Davis researchers are working to help with the support of The Hartwell Foundation.

five researchers in lab coats standing, with preschoolers on play structure behind them

UC Davis researchers, from left, Candice Clay, Sanjay Joshi, J. Kent Leach, Cristina Davis and Lin Tian received awards from The Hartwell Foundation to advance biomedical research that will ensure more kids can thrive like the preschoolers from UC Davis’ Russell Park Child Development Center pictured here. (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Since 2008, The Hartwell Foundation has honored seven UC Davis faculty researchers with Individual Biomedical Research Awards, each representing $300,000 in direct support over three years to accelerate innovative research for the benefit of children. The foundation has also awarded UC Davis two Biomedical Research Fellowships, which provide $100,000 direct support over two years to young researchers who have completed requirements for a doctoral degree and are in the early stages of career development.

“We seek to inspire innovation and achievement by providing financial support to stimulate discovery in early-stage biomedical research, which we hope will benefit children of the United States,” said Fred Dombrose, president of The Hartwell Foundation. “UC Davis has been a key partner in accomplishing our mission.”

The Hartwell Foundation named UC Davis one of its Top 10 Centers of Biomedical Research in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Specifically, the foundation’s support has helped faculty researchers in the following areas:

Targeting childhood leukemia

Noriko Satake, assistant professor of pediatrics, is dedicated to finding better ways to treat childhood leukemia. Children who survive current leukemia treatment protocols suffer serious long-term side effects from radiation and chemotherapy. Satake’s 2011 Hartwell Award has enabled her to pursue molecular targeting, a new approach that will deliver cancer-curing molecules directly to leukemia cells, but not healthy cells. “Before the funding, I was here some days from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. because I had to do everything myself,” said Satake. Now, she has a “small but excellent” staff that is completing the first step of new therapy testing.

Asthma control

Cristina E. Davis, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received an award in 2010 for her efforts to create a hand-held breath sensor useful in diagnosing pediatric asthma and managing medications. The device is envisioned to be about the size of an inhaler, which children could use and carry with them daily. “I believe my innovation will make it possible for children to personally monitor their asthma during daily activities and automatically record their testing results to a mobile phone for later evaluation,” Davis explained. “This will allow doctors and families to better tailor asthma management plans for individual children.”

Independence for paralyzed children

Sanjay Joshi, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, received an award in 2009 to develop a brain-machine interface that paralyzed children can use to control computers, wheelchairs or other devices and that will adapt as they grow. “Almost every paralyzed person can use at least one muscle,” Joshi said. “The award has been instrumental in allowing me to explore the use of muscle electrical signals for remote, digital control of electronic devices. This will open opportunities for those who are severely paralyzed to resume a productive life.”

Treating incurable autoimmune diseases

Frederic Chedin, associate professor of molecular and cellular biology, said his 2011 award provides him an opportunity to examine the underlying causes of systemic lupus erythematosus, the most common pediatric autoimmune disorder and a lifelong, incurable condition that has limited treatment options. “Most prescribed drugs are only moderately effective and have not changed in decades. I am now able to leverage cutting-edge genomics technologies that may lead to novel therapeutic interventions.”

Preventing brain damage in babies

J. Kent Leach, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, is developing a synthetic bone matrix that could eliminate some of the operations currently used to treat craniosynostosis, a defect occurring in one out of every 2,000 live births that is caused by premature hardening of the soft space between the bones of the skull. Without multiple complex surgeries, children with this defect will endure vision impairment, deafness, facial asymmetry and abnormal brain function. “The Hartwell Foundation challenged me to think differently about my approach to research,” said Leach, who received a 2008 award. “I have demonstrated that bone-inducing proteins are different between affected and healthy kids. This discovery has enabled me to develop a new way to slow bone formation in affected kids and led to numerous partnerships.”

Better treatments for childhood brain tumors

Chemotherapy for brain cancer is often ineffective because the blood-brain barrier that protects the human brain from harmful substances also blocks chemotherapeutic drugs from reaching the tumor. Angela Gelli, associate professor of pharmacology, received a 2012 award to pursue ways to enable anti-cancer drugs to cross the blood-brain barrier to target a brain tumor. “If my proposed technology allowed just a fraction of an anticancer drug across the blood-brain barrier the result would have a huge impact on the survival of affected children,” Gelli said.

Understanding Down syndrome

The progression of Down syndrome, which affects one out of every 700 to 800 babies in the U.S., has long been suspected to be caused by changes in brain circuitry. Lin Tian, assistant professor of biochemistry and molecular medicine, received a 2012 award to support her research into understanding the relationship between brain cells, brain circuitry and mental retardation. “I became interested in studying neurological diseases in children when I became pregnant in 2009,” she related. “Now, I seek to model Down syndrome brain circuitry in order to shed light on the way genetic identity is linked to . . . mental retardation.”

Understanding autism and finding a cure for bronchitis

UC Davis also received Hartwell Fellowships to fund postdoctoral candidates who exemplify the values of The Hartwell Foundation. In 2011, UC Davis selected Paula Goines, who is studying autism by looking at nerve cells grown from adult stem cells present in patients’ hair follicles. In 2012, the university selected Candice Clay, who is working on potential treatments for childhood respiratory ailments.

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