Seeing the study of stem cells

More than 200 high school students, including those in the Costa Mesa-based Coastline Regional Occupational Program, got an inside look at the stem cell research at UC Irvine.

UCI’s Sue and Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center opened its doors Monday for the first of several events to celebrate International Stem Cell Awareness Day, which is Wednesday. The university is also hosting a science symposium from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday with a Meet the Scientists interactive forum from 5 to 5:45 p.m.

“I think it is just an exciting time for this field, and what we want to do is get the word out,” said Director Peter Donovan.

In a little more than decade, stem cells have moved from research to being used in humans, such a quick pace that people often compare it to the race to get a man on the moon, but stem cell research is moving much faster, Donovan said.

The speed partly comes from a feeling that the field can offer new treatment for diseases that have none, he said.

At UCI, about 200 scientists — from graduate students to technicians to professors — are studying stem cells and researching treatments for spinal cord and traumatic brain injuries, and diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s.

“We truly believe that the work that we do here will transform the world,” Donovan said.

UCI scientist Aileen Anderson gave students an overview of stem cells and explained her research, which led to the first human clinical trials of using neural stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries.

Anderson said understanding spinal cord injuries can have a broader impact on the research for a treatment in others areas, such as strokes, ALS and traumatic brain injuries.

“Stem cell research might be able to help a lot of different diseases,” she said.

After the talk, students explored labs where they checked out stem cells under a microscope, learned how stem cells are grown and saw some physical therapy tools including a small putting green that measures the balance of someone with Parkinson’s disease.

Twitter: @britneyjbarnes