Stem Cells

Stem cells are distinguished by their ability to differentiate into many types of cells in the body and to self-replicate indefinitely. Their very nature has intrigued scientists who foresee a day when stem cells could be used to replace diseased and injured tissue in patients, to screen and test new drugs, and to learn more about our fundamental biology.

Researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute are pioneering advances in all three types of stem cells: 1) embryonic stem cells, the basic building blocks of a developing embryo and have the ability to develop into nearly every cell type of the body; 2) adult or somatic stem cells, which reside in many tissues of the body and are central to regeneration and renewal in healthy humans; and 3) induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPSCs, a type of stem cell engineered by genetically reprogramming skin cells into an embryonic stem cell-like state.

Read More: Stem Cells FAQ

Sanford-Burnham's leadership in stem cell research

Sanford-Burnham is a world leader in stem cell research, education, and training. Our scientists and physicians are studying the molecular underpinnings that determine the fate of stem cells and finding new ways to manipulate those mechanisms so that stem cells can someday be used as therapeutic tools to treat patients with diabetes, heart disease, cancer, spinal cord injuries, neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease, and more.

How the promise of stem cells is being realized in the lab

Stem Cell Research Center

Sanford-Burnham’s Stem Cell Research Center is one of the Institute’s four technology centers dedicated to developing new tools and other resources for our researchers and the broader scientific community. The Stem Cell Research Center is comprised of seven integrated core divisions, each with its own mission to help advance stem cell discoveries. One division specializes in growing stem cells for study. Another focuses on developing new imaging technology. In another core facility, scientists are producing the world’s largest bank of iPSCs generated from human patients with a range of diseases. One core is devoted solely to finding the best ways to share data and train stem cell biologists, within the Institute and beyond.

Sanford-Burnham’s Stem Cell Research Center is the direct result of the Institute’s commitment to recognizing emerging fields and investing in the infrastructure to advance cutting-edge research. As a shared resource for Sanford-Burnham scientists and the community, the center has grown into a vital hub of study, training, and medical research advancement.

How the promise of stem cells is being realized in patients

Evan Snyder

Sanford-Burnham’s Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Program is one of the most multi-disciplinary research programs at the Institute, drawing talent from across the campus and across many disease research programs. With 40 faculty and eight adjunct members, the program is one of three in the Institute’s Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research.

Dr. Evan Snyder, director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Program, was one of the first to discover that stem cells are pathotropic, meaning that they are drawn to, or home in on, pathological locations in the brain, including those that can occur from injury or degeneration. His team is now developing safer and more effective methods for transplanting therapeutic stem cells and tracking their behavior in the recipient. Dr. Stuart Lipton, director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research, and his research group are reprogramming embryonic stem cells to generate dopamine-producing neurons. After showing great therapeutic promise in a rodent model of Parkinson’s disease, these cells are now in pre-clinical trials before they are tested in humans.

Another lab in this program is developing ways to treat type 1 diabetics by transplanting stem cells that can differentiate into an endless supply of new insulin-producing beta cells and protecting these cells from the host immune system. Other groups are also studying the way that adult muscle stem cells become exhausted and unable to continue proliferating in patients with muscular dystrophy.

Stem cells are also being used in Sanford-Burnham’s Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics. There, scientists are using disease-in-a-dish models—iPSCs created from a patient’s own skin cells—and robotic arms to look for chemical compounds that reverse signs of disease. These compounds could be further developed into new therapies that can be tested in people.

Timeline - Stem Cell Research at Sanford-Burnham




2001 – Sanford-Burnham’s Stem Cells and Regenerative Biology Program and Stem Cell Research Center are founded to help maintain the momentum of stem cell science as restrictions on federal-funded stem cell research tighten.

2004 – Proposition 71 is passed in California, creating the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine and providing new funding for stem cell research in the state.

2005 – The National Institutes of Health selects Sanford-Burnham as an exploratory center for human embryonic stem cell research and awards it $3 million to fund research, infrastructure, and training.

2006 – Dr. Fred Levine and colleagues show that endocrine progenitor stem cells exist in the adult human pancreas, and that these stem cells can be transformed into insulin-producing cells—a major step toward developing new therapies for the treatment of diabetes.

2007 – The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine awards Sanford-Burnham $6 million to fund stem cell research projects.

2008 – Philanthropist T. Denny Sanford donates $30 Million to the San Diego Consortium for Regenerative Medicine and it is renamed the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine in his honor.

2010 – Sanford-Burnham recruits Dr. Robert Wechsler-Reya to the Institute’s faculty. Dr. Wechsler-Reya’s team discovered cancer stem cells in animal models of medulloblastoma, an aggressive childhood brain tumor. He is the first researcher to receive a Leadership Award from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine.

2011 – Dr. Stuart Lipton, director of the Del E. Webb Center for Neuroscience, Aging, and Stem Cell Research, and collaborators were among the first to reprogram skin cells directly into functioning neurons, an achievement that could someday help patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other neurodegenerative disorders.

2011 – Sanford-Burnham’s Stem Cell Research Center opens a new core facility dedicated to generating and storing a collection of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) derived from individual patients with a variety of diseases.

For more information

California Institute for Regenerative Medicine
Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine
World Stem Cell Summit
Alliance for Regenerative Medicine
National Institutes of Health - Stem Cell Information
National Academy of Sciences Guidelines for Human Embyonic Stem Cell Research

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