UCSC Up To More than Bioinformatics

Theral Timpson

UC Santa Cruz is well know in our field for their part in the Human Genome Project.  Led by David Haussler, the bioinformatics group there released the first working draft of the human genome sequence on the web, leading shortly to the UCSC Genome Browser, an essential open resource for biomedical science.  This was followed up last year by the launch of the  Cancer Genomics Hub (CGHub), a large-scale data repository for the National Cancer Institute. 

But perhaps less well known is that Haussler and his colleagues at the Center for Biomolecular Science and Engineering also run the Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells.  The Institute is one of the major facilities funded by CIRM (California Institute for Regenerative Medicine) and will benefit from the recently announced award of $36 million to attract six world-class scientists to California.  One of these, Richard Gregory of Harvard, will be moving to the Institute at UCSC.  

Camilla Forsberg, Co-Director, UCSC Institute for the Biology of Stem Cells

Last week, we attended the first ever Stem Cells and Aging Symposium at UCSC, a two day meeting put on by the Institute at UCSC’s University Center devoted to connecting stem cell research with that on aging.   We attended, first, because the campus is twenty minutes from our Mendelspod office and we hope to feature more of the researchers and their work on the program.  (Stay tuned for an upcoming interview with David Haussler).  But also because both stem cell research and that on aging is really taking off.  Look for an upcoming series on both topics.   

“We’ve seen huge interest in stem cells recently,” Camilla Forsberg, Co-Director of the Institute, told me at one of the breaks.   

The Insitute has held a training program for several years for ten students, she went on, explaining how the meeting came about.  Each year the students would get together and present their work at Research Reveiw Day.  Last year, Camilla and her colleagues decided to go bigger with this year’s review and turned it into the two day sympsosium.

The increased interest in stem cell research is due to the breakthroughs in the field, she says, and also because stem cell research is offering much better understanding of basic biology itself.  

The meeting was keynoted by Judith Campisi, a well known researcher from the Buck Institute for Research on Aging, and featured expert stem cell scientists presenting their work.   Session topics were:

  • Aging and the stem cell niche
  • Insights on aging from the embryo
  • Aging of tissue-specific stem cells
  • Epigentics and aging

After the sessions, several hours were devoted to poster presentations in various rooms.

“This is an impressive lineup of speakers for a small conference,” said Amy Ralston, a biology professor at UCSC.  

Big Science and Stem Cell Research

I spoke with Amy and an HHMI investigator, Judith Kimble, after a lunch panel devoted to “building collaborations for stem cell research in aging.”    Judith says that big science collaborations are becoming more important. 

“Science is changing from small science to big science.  Thirty years ago, one hundred percent of research was small science.  Now thirty percent or so is big science,”  said Judith.  

Our audience at Mendelspod will know that this has been an important topic for us.  Both Judith and Amy are fans of ENCODE, a $400 million project funded by the NHGRI to identify all functional elements in the human genome sequence, and saw it as the logical next step after the Human Genome Project.  

I mentioned the arguments made here at Mendelspod by Dan Graur and Michael Eisen that big science is a waste of money which threatens the system of independent biological research that has been going on for the last fifty years.  

“If you remember,” responded Judith, “no one wanted to put money into the Human Genome Project in the beginning.  And now everyone uses the data.”

Judith said she favored the idea of big science collaborations for stem cell research, such as those that were mentioned at the lunch panel, as long as the funding “didn’t damage RO1s,” the mainstay of the grant system.

“The Stem Cell Institute at UCSC is capitalizing on the strengths the university already has in genomics,” concluded co-director Camilla Forsberg.    In addition to world class computational biology, the university also boasts an RNA Center.  Richard Gregory, the newcomer from Boston funded by CIRM, is an RNA biologist. 

“And this week’s symposium, which we hope will continue next year is a great opportunity for training our students and offering researchers from here and other centers a place to show their work,” she said.  

The meeting was sponsored by the Ellison Foundation, a major funder of aging related research, and was headlined by a list of commercial sponsors as well. On the meeting website it says that “this is the only major meeting on stem cells and aging in the United States this year.”  

I wonder how long they’ll be able to boast that line.