Overcoming a Vexing Barrier: UCSF, February 2011

Researchers at the Eli and Edythe Broad Center of Regeneration Medicine and Stem Cell Research at UCSF are tackling monumental problems – cures for diseases as pernicious as Parkinson’s disease and brain tumors. Yet a vexing barrier to those would-be cures doesn’t get as much limelight: how to put the cells into people as efficiently as possible.

Given the significance of this translational problem, one UCSF clinician-scientist felt compelled to develop a pet project to address the issue. He began by partnering with an engineering class across the bay.

Daniel Lim, MD, PhD, a neurosurgeon and stem cell researcher, realized that current surgical tools do not adequately deliver stem cells to the human brain, with its large size and irregular shape with twists and turns. He called it “a gap in the pipeline to our therapies, a bottleneck to translation.”

“I assure you, we risk clinical trial failures unless we develop that tool,” Lim says.

Lim hit an early roadblock when he approached medical device manufacturers, who didn’t see commercial potential. Undeterred, he moved on to work with a team of UC Berkeley engineering students, who designed and produced an improved cell injector prototype that can deploy and turn like a periscope to target the delivery of cells.

“This first prototype is already a great improvement over current devices, but my goal is to bring together a team that can innovate something even more novel, perhaps even unexpected,” he said.

Arnold Kriegstein, MD, PhD, director of the stem cell center, encouraged Lim to pursue the project, even though this engineering work is quite distinct from the primary focus of his basic science lab studying stem cell molecular biology. Kriegstein said Lim’s development of “a better mousetrap” will be particularly useful for translational work by David Rowitch, MD, PhD, for instance, who recently launched UCSF’s first human stem cell trial.

In future trials, “This device will be an important part of our effort to deliver these cells to the brain,” Kriegstein said.

Lim sees support for biomedical ingenuity as part of the culture that drew him to UCSF. “UCSF encourages a culture of innovation through the crossing of scientific boundaries,” Lim says. “Maybe we’re a bit like Google that way, giving people time and resources to pursue pet projects.” Even more unusual, he says, is that the UCSF culture enabled him, as a junior faculty member, to “assemble a multidisciplinary team composed of several members much more senior to me.”

Lim has recently obtained a $1.8 million grant from the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine to pursue this project. If he’s successful, Lim foresees wide use of the new device. “We will make our device available to anybody who wants to use it,” he says.


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