High school SPARK intern presents stem cell research to academic audience 

Earlier this year, CIRM welcomed many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference in Oakland. The SPARK program is one of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) many programs dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California.   

At the SPARK conference, a handful of students presented the stem cell research they did over the summer. It was a great opportunity to share their experiences as well as findings to their high school peers. 

Just recently, Simran Ovalekar—a 2022 SPARK program intern—had the unique opportunity to share her research and findings with a wider audience, including undergraduate and PhD students at STEM Shadow Day in San Diego. The event aims to provide college prep students from San Diego and Imperial Valley counties with a unique experience to witness the “real world” of work in an engineering or scientific environment. 

“At first I was nervous because I understood that I would be presenting not only in front of high school students, but also undergraduates and PhD candidates,” Simran says. “After reviewing my research, I felt solid and excited to present. I absolutely loved working in the lab so I knew all I had to do was be myself and show my enthusiasm.”

During the SPARK summer internship, Simran joined the Sacco Lab to study Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD) and how stem cells can be used to provide treatment. DMD is a progressive muscle wasting disorder with life expectancy of approximately age 20. There are around 17,000 people, the vast majority of them boys, diagnosed with DMD in the US

Dr. Sacco’s lab—which has also received CIRM funding—is researching ways to generate healthy adult muscle stem cells using the patient’s own cells to generate healthy skeletal muscle. 

For Simran, conducting research for DMD was personal, as her sister was born with a defect affecting the heart.  

“When I began this program, I had a superficial understanding of what a stem cell was. Now, however, I am amazed at the possibilities stem cells provide, and with certainty, can say stem cells are the future of medicine.” 

After her presentation at STEM Shadow Day, Simran says she received a positive response from attendees and was reminded why she loves science and of her passion for pursuing a career in stem cell research.  

“I am looking forward to continue skeletal stem cell research and am even open to experimenting with other avenues of molecular medicine,” Simran says. “I am eager to have the opportunity to pursue the hands-on research I enjoyed this past summer.” 


CIRM has also funded a clinical trial for people with DMD. We blogged about that work and how the impact it is having on some people’s lives.  

 

How this scientist changed paths to become a stem cell researcher

Aaliyah Staples-West didn’t originally envision becoming a stem cell researcher. As a student at San Diego State University, she admits that she sometimes struggled with reading protocols or finishing experiments on time. She also was originally studying chemistry, a very distinct scientific field from regenerative medicine. 

But when she saw a post on Instagram about the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy internship program, she did a bit of research about it and ultimately stepped up to pursue the opportunity.   

“Everything I was looking for aligned with what I wanted to do,” she says. “I applied and I was greeted with open arms to an acceptance about a week later.” She even stayed in college for an extra semester so she could enroll in the CIRM internship program.

During the year-long internship—which took place at UC San Diego in the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine—Aaliyah studied and modeled a rare disease called Cockayne Syndrome B (CSB). CSB is a rare disease which causes short stature, premature aging, severe photosensitivity, and moderate to severe learning delay. 

In the lab, Aaliyah worked with stem cells to derive brain organoids, which are three-dimensional, organ-like clusters of cells. She also researched vascular endothelial cells, which form a single cell layer that lines all blood vessels. She tested and observed these to further understand the causes of CSB.  

Aaliyah also had opportunities to do work outside of the lab, traveling to various scientific conferences across the state to explain her work to other scientists.

She enjoyed sharing her findings, but Aaliyah says it was a challenge at first to learn all the complex science and terminology relating to stem cells. She overcame that obstacle by asking lots of questions and putting in extra effort to understanding the biology and reasoning behind her work.  

“I would write down all the terms my mentor would say that I didn’t understand and look them up,” she says. “I would even practice using them in a sentence. I made it very intentional that if I wanted to continue researching in this field I needed to be on the same page.”

Aaliyah and her Bridges cohort at the CIRM Bridges conference in San Diego.

Now that her internship is over, Aaliyah is much more confident and has learned various techniques to successfully complete research projects. She now works for biotechnology company Resilience as a research associate working with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) and hematopoietic stem cells. Though she originally intended to go to medical school, she is now looking into MD/PhD programs where she can apply all that she’s learned in her training and education.  

“I never thought I would have a love for stem cell research until participating in this program,” she says. “Stem cell research and regenerative medicine provide infinite opportunities for developing, understanding and potentially curing diseases. It’s important to continue this type of research to ensure science is quickly evolving and to make an impact on overall health.” 

To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022.  Learn more about CIRM’s internship programs here

All photos courtesy of Sarah White/SDSU and Aaliyah Staples-West.

A newfound passion for stem cell research

All her life, Madison Waterlander knew that she wanted to be a part of the medical field. But soon after graduating from the University of Hawaii with her undergraduate degree, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It was during this time that she noticed how crucial biomedical research was in the medical field and lives of patients, and when she realized she had a passion for research.  

She soon after found a master’s program in biotechnology and bioinformatics at California State University Channel Islands (CI), just a few minutes from Camarillo, the town she grew up in.  

Looking further into the program, she learned that to pursue a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis for the degree, she would have to complete a one-year lab internship funded by the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). The internship was part of CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research and Therapy Program, which prepares California undergraduate and master’s graduate students for highly productive careers in stem cell research and therapy development.  

The opportunity to have hands-on experience in a lab through the internship solidified her decision to join the graduate program. 

Once she settled into the program at CSU Channel Islands, she began her internship, which took place at UC Santa Barbara in the Weimbs Lab. While there, she researched the underlying mechanisms and possible new therapies for Autosomal Dominant Polycystic Kidney Disease (ADPKD), a genetic disorder characterized by the growth of numerous cysts in the kidneys.  

“This CIRM-funded internship was so enriching for me, and I was able to expand my knowledge and skill set immensely in the laboratory,” Madison says. “I always knew that I loved science and the medical field, but this experience truly helped me realize that my strongest passion resides in the scientific research that goes into improving the quality of patient care and treatments.” 

While Madison says the internship supported her knowledge in the lab and was an overall positive experience, she also faced some personal challenges during that time, including losing her grandma. She struggled with the loss, but Madison says her time in the lab allowed her to focus on something she loved doing and that her grandma always encouraged her to do. 

“My grandma never would have wanted me to give up, so that truly helped to push me to continue on, and to try my hardest in every day to make an impact,” Madison says. 

After a year of hard work in the lab, Madison officially graduated from CSU Channel Islands this summer with a Master of Science Degree in Biotechnology and Bioinformatics with a Stem Cell Technology and Laboratory Management emphasis. Now, Madison is pursuing a role in the biotechnology industry within translational biomedical research.

“I truly enjoyed every moment of my CIRM internship, and I feel that it truly revealed to me just how much I enjoy participating in biomedical research,” Madison says. “I’ve always felt that research feels like a treasure hunt looking for cures and treatments, so the more of us that are partaking in the treasure hunt, the quicker we can find new treatments and provide solutions for patients.” 

Stories like Madison’s are why CIRM remains committed to training the next generation of scientists to conduct research and deliver regenerative medicine and stem cell therapies to patients. To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees—including Madison—who are completing their internships in 2022.   

CIRM Bridges intern researches stem cells to grow kidneys 

David Anjakos in the lab. Photo courtesy Sarah White/SDSU.

When he was younger, David Anjakos experienced kidney failure due to an autoimmune disease, leaving him without kidneys in his body. As a trainee in the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Internship Program, Anjakos is researching methods of growing organs for transplantation to help people on a transplant list, himself included. 

By now, Anjakos thought he’d have his own kidney and that he would be off the transplant list and dialysis. That’s not the case, so he realized he wanted to try and do something about it.  

“Fifteen years later, we haven’t really gotten there. It just shows how complex the problem is and how even with thousands of hours and scientists working on this, we still haven’t quite got there,” he says. “What that showed me is that I needed to step in. We need more people on these problems.” 

David Anjakos in the lab. Photo courtesy Sarah White/SDSU.

That’s what inspired him to join the CIRM Bridges Program at San Diego State University. Specifically, he wanted to get into stem cells to try to control them to do what he wanted them to do. He’s completing his internship at the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, where he is working toward developing a protein that will be able to activate stem cells to turn into different organs. 

If successful, this will be important for drug discovery, growing organs and vascularization, the process of growing blood vessels into a tissue to improve oxygen and nutrient supply. 

“CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research program has really been a huge opportunity for me to get into science, to practice science, to practice the skills that I’ll need,” said Anjakos. “It has really helped me in my confidence in my ability to do science.” 

After finishing his Bridges internship at the Sanford Consortium, Anjakos plans to start a PhD program so he can apply all he has learned from creating approximations of the Wnt protein that is essential for turning stem cells into organs with functioning vessels.  

To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022. 

Started in 2009, the Bridges program provides paid stem cell research internships to students at universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. Each Bridges internship includes thorough hands-on training and education in regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities. Click here to learn more about CIRM’s educational programs.  


This story was first covered by Sarah White and Susanne Clara Bard. Read the original release on the San Diego State University website.  

 

How this scientist uses Legos to explain the power of stem cells 

Explaining science is hard. Explaining stem cells, which have their very own unique complexities, can be even more of a challenge, especially when communicating with a non-scientific audience.  

That’s why when we received this blog submission from a CIRM SPARK Program intern through UCSF’s High School Intern Program (HIP) explaining stem cells in a simple, straightforward way using Legos, we knew we had to share it with our readers.

Before we share the intern’s brilliant explanation of stem cells, here’s how the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) defines stem cells. These and other key terms can be found on our website

The first thing to know about stem cells is that there is not just one kind. In fact, there are many different types of stem cells, each with very different potential to treat disease. There are various types of stem cells, including pluripotent, embryonic, adult, and iPSC (induced pluripotent stem cell).  

Stem cells also have the potential to become other kinds of cells in the body. For example, embryonic stem cells can become many other kinds of cells, whereas adult stem cells, such as in fat, can only become bone or cartilage. 

Now, the fun part! Here’s what the student shared in their prize-winning SPARK Program blog submission.


If someone were to ask me what stem cells are in a simple and perhaps figurative way now, I would say that stem cells are just like Legos. Legos are special building-blocks that are in a blank or default-like state, but can be something greater and unique on its own later on.  

Similarly, stem cells are called “unspecialized cells” because they are yet to be “specialized” or become a certain type of cell. They can be a blood, brain, heart, and basically all types of cells respectively, with little to no exceptions. Moreover, not all Legos are built the same. Some can be regular block-shaped, while some can be circular or even triangular. Therefore, this limits Legos’ abilities to a certain degree. Similarly, not all stem cells are necessarily the same. 

With just the right amount and type of Legos, you can easily assemble and build a house, a car, or whatever you could possibly think about. Similarly, the possibilities are endless with stem cells as well, which is why it’s truly a promising and key aspect in regenerative medicine today. 


Bravo! In addition to creating a unique way of explaining stem cells during their internship, the student also learned how to differentiate the different types and sources of stem cells from one another through hands-on experience at a world-renowned institution.  

The student added, “My newly-found interest in regenerative medicine and stem cells is definitely something that I’m looking forward to with great passion and knowledge moving forward.” 

To learn more about CIRM’s internship programs, visit our website. To read another prize-winning blog submission from a SPARK intern, click here.

[PHOTOS] California high school students celebrate regenerative medicine science at CIRM’s annual SPARK conference

We had a wonderful time meeting so many energetic and enthusiastic high school students at the 2022 SPARK Program annual conference hosted by UCSF at the MLK Research Building. The SPARK program is one of the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine’s (CIRM) many programs dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California. 

Held in-person for the first time since 2019, the event hosted students and program directors from all over California, allowing them the opportunity to share their research through oral and poster presentations. This year, students also attended talks about new approaches to sickle cell disease curative therapies, anti-racism in STEM, and patient advocacy.    

The SPARK Program—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative Medicine Knowledge—provides California high school students with summer research internships at leading stem cell institutes in California. To date, there have been 530 SPARK alumni, and another 110 high school interns are completing their training this summer.  

The SPARK program specifically selects students who represent the diversity of California’s population, particularly those who might not otherwise have opportunities to take part in research internships due to socioeconomic constraints.  

“I really enjoyed being a part of this program, and I feel like I understand so much better what it’s like to be a researcher,” said Brighton C., a student in the SPARK program at Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science (pictured below). “I also feel more confident in the subject of stem cells and I might want to dedicate my future to it.” 

We’ll be sharing more stories from CIRM’s SPARK Program throughout the year, including blog submissions from students that summarize their summer experiences. Stay tuned for more and be sure to follow CIRM on Instagram, where we will share more photos and fun content created by the students. 

There are currently 11 active SPARK programs throughout California, each with its own eligibility criteria and application process. If you are interested in learning more, please visit this web page for more details about each program. If you have questions about CIRM’s education programs, please email Dr. Kelly Shepard at education@cirm.ca.gov. 

Thank you to UCSF for hosting the event, and to all the SPARK program directors for supporting this year’s bright interns!

Check out some of the photos from this year’s SPARK conference below. 

[PHOTOS] CIRM’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program hosts annual conference in sunny San Diego

For more than a decade, the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) has funded educational and research training programs to give students the opportunity to explore regenerative medicine and stem cell science right here in California.   

This summer, the CIRM team was thrilled to meet the bright scientists taking part in this year’s Bridges to Stem Cell Research Program, which culminated at the 2022 Bridges Trainee Meeting in sunny San Diego.  

Started in 2009, the Bridges program provides paid stem cell research internships to students at universities and colleges that don’t have major stem cell research programs. Each Bridges internship includes thorough hands-on training and education in regenerative medicine and stem cell research, and direct patient engagement and outreach activities that engage California’s diverse communities. 

To date, there are 1,663 Bridges alumni, and another 109 Bridges trainees are completing their internships in 2022. 

In addition to networking with other scientists across the state, the annual Bridges Trainee Meeting provides students the opportunity to share their research in poster presentations and to learn about careers in the regenerative medicine field. This year, students also attended talks about cutting edge science research, anti-racism in STEM, science communication through social media, and patient advocacy.  

“As the field advances, we must also meet the demand for promising young scientists,” says Maria T. Millan, M.D., President and CEO of CIRM (pictured below). “The CIRM Bridges programs across the state of California will provide students with the tools and resources to begin their careers in regenerative medicine.” 

There are currently 15 active Bridges programs throughout California, each with its own eligibility criteria and application process. If you are interested in applying, please visit this web page for more details about each program. If you have questions about the Bridges program, please email the CIRM Bridges director, Dr. Kelly Shepard at education@cirm.ca.gov. 

Finally, a sincere thank you goes to the Bridges Program from California State University, San Marcos for hosting this year’s CIRM Bridges Trainee Meeting! 

Check out some of the photos from this year’s conference below.

CIRM’s SPARK internship program provides California high school students with hands-on training in stem cell research

SPARK student intern Simran O.

The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) is dedicated to building a diverse and highly-skilled workforce to support the growing regenerative medicine economy right here in California. 

One of the ways we do this is through our SPARK educational internship program.  The SPARK awards—also known as the Summer Program to Accelerate Regenerative medicine Knowledge— support summer research internships for high school students at leading stem cell institutes in California. 

While the Bridges internships for undergraduate and master’s graduate students take place year-round, the SPARK internships are currently underway across California and are already providing high school students an invaluable opportunity to gain hands-on training in stem cell research at some of the leading research facilities in the state.  

The SPARK program specifically selects students who represent the diversity of California’s population, particularly those who might not otherwise have opportunities to take part in research internships due to socioeconomic constraints. 

SPARK students spend the summer learning about stem cells and regenerative medicine and will conduct a six-week research internship in a stem cell lab. At the end of their program, students get to show off their hard work by presenting their research at the SPARK annual conference. Stay tuned for more updates as the program concludes! 

In addition to showcasing their research, the bright young scientists are sharing their experience through social media, and we’ve compiled some of their submissions so far. To see more of their social media submissions—plus more updates and news from CIRM—be sure to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn.  

Currently, there are 11 active SPARK programs located in Northern and Southern California. Each program has its own application process and way of selecting students for their SPARK program. If you are a student, teacher or family member interested in learning more information about how to apply or when application deadlines are, please visit the CIRM website.

CIRM Board gives thumbs up to training and treatment programs

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CIRM Bridges student discusses her poster presentation

At CIRM, the bread and butter of what we do is funding research and hopefully advancing therapies to patients. But the jam, that’s our education programs. Helping train the next generation of stem cell and gene therapy scientists is really inspiring. Watching these young students – and some are just high school juniors – come in and grasp the science and quickly become fluent in talking about it and creating their own experiments shows the future is in good hands.

Right now we fund several programs, such as our SPARK and Bridges internships, but they can’t cover everything, so last week the CIRM Board approved a new training program called COMPASS (Creating Opportunities through Mentorship and Partnership Across Stem Cell Science). The program will fill a critical need for skilled research practitioners who understand and contribute at all levels in the translation of science to medicine, from bench to bedside.

The objective of the COMPASS Training Program is to prepare a diverse group of undergraduate students for careers in regenerative medicine through the creation of novel recruitment and support mechanisms that identify and foster untapped talent within populations that are historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences. It will combine hands-on research with mentorship experiences to enhance transition of students to successful careers. A parallel objective is to foster greater awareness and appreciation of diversity, equity and inclusion in trainees, mentors, and other program participants

The CIRM Board approved investing $58.22 million for up to 20 applications for a five-year duration.

“This new program highlights our growing commitment to creating a diverse workforce, one that taps into communities that have been historically under-represented in the biomedical sciences,” says Dr. Maria T. Millan, President and CEO of CIRM. “The COVID19 pandemic made it clear that the benefits of scientific discovery are not always accessible to communities that most need them. CIRM is committed to tackling these challenges by creating a diverse and dedicated workforce that can meet the technical demands of taking novel treatment ideas and making them a reality.”

The Board also approved a new $80 million concept plan to expand the CIRM Alpha Stem Cell Clinic Network. The Network clinics are all in top California medical centers that have the experience and the expertise to deliver high-quality FDA-authorized stem cell clinical trials to patients.

There are currently five Alpha Clinics – UC San Diego; UCLA/UC Irvine; City of Hope; UCSF; UC Davis – and since 2015 they have hosted more than 105 clinical trials, enrolled more than 750 patients in these trials, and generated more than $95 million in industry contracts. 

Each award will provide up to $8 million in funding over a five-year period. The clinics will have to include:

  • A demonstrated ability to offer stem cell and gene therapies to patients as part of a clinical trial.
  • Programs to help support the career development of doctors, nurses, researchers or other medical professionals essential for regenerative medicine clinical trials.
  • A commitment to data sharing and meeting CIRM’s requirements addressing issues of diversity, equity and inclusion and meeting the needs of California’s diverse patient population.