The potential of using stem cells to treat Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses will be investigated by Victorian and Californian researchers under a US$22 million (US$28.7 million) collaboration, Innovation Minister Gavin Jennings said recently.

The funding grants for four projects are the first step in a three-year collaboration, established last year between the Brumby Government and the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), that will establish strategic projects on stem cell research aimed at accelerating treatments of disease.

Other joint projects focus on moving basic research toward therapies by addressing safety, quality and technical hurdles in the safe use of stem cells for human therapies.

"This collaboration highlights that Victoria and California are world leaders in biotechnology and stem cell research, and the Brumby Government is taking action with this project to improve the quality of life of the millions of people around the world suffering from Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and diabetes," Mr Jennings said.

"These important projects are the first to emerge since the Premier, John Brumby, and I signed the historic agreement last year with CIRM president Alan Trounson to establish a pan-Pacific 'stem cell airbridge' between Victoria and CIRM."

Mr Jennings met with Professor Trounson, former director of the Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratories at Monash University, and CIRM chairman Robert Klein at BIO2009, an international biotechnology convention in Atlanta, USA, to announce details of the collaboration.

The Brumby Government will fund the Victorian teams while CIRM will fund the Californian teams. There are four joint projects so far being funded by the alliance.

"With these grants, CIRM and Victoria have taken the first step in funding translational research that will be critical for the development of future therapies," Professor Trounson said.

"We hope that these first projects will spur on greater cooperation and collaboration between other Victorian and Californian scientists and that this new alliance will continue to focus on helping patients and delivering new therapies in this cutting-edge medical field."

Mr Klein said the battle against chronic diseases needed to be a global initiative.

"The medical research mission must be global to capture the best minds of every nation to fight chronic diseases that have plagued mankind throughout history. The Australian collaboration with California marks a historic milestone for stem cell research in globalizing the battle against chronic disease," said Mr Klein.

Victoria is home to more than 43 per cent of Australia's medical research activity including specialist stem cell centres such as the Australian Stem Cell Centre, Monash Immunology and Stem Cell Laboratory and the Australian Regenerative Medicine Institute.

The projects receiving Victorian Government and CIRM funding are:

Australian Stem Cell Centre, Melbourne and the University of California, Irvine

To determine whether stem cells may one day be able to be used in the clinic as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Alzheimer's is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects over 4.5 million Americans. Over 500,000 Australians live with the disease currently. There are currently no effective therapies for the treatment of Alzheimer's. This project will use human embryonic stem cells which are transformed into human neural stem cells and test their ability to improve memory and function, without rejection by the immune system, in an animal model of Alzheimer's disease. Professor Richard Boyd (Australia) and Frank LaFerla (California) will lead the project.

Florey Neuroscience Institutes, Melbourne and Burnham Institute of Medical Research, La Jolla

Parkinson's disease severely debilitates about two per cent of the US population and approximately 80,000 Australians, with more than 2,225 new cases diagnosed each year in Victoria. Whilst there is currently no cure available for the disease, transplantation (to replace the dying nerve cells in the brain) offers long term hope for many patients. Using mouse and human embryonic stem cells, this collaboration will identify and isolate the best candidate cell for transplantation. The project will be led by Professor Colin Pouton, Dr Clare Parish (Australia) and Professor Evan Snyder (California).

Australian Stem Cell Centre, Melbourne and the Scripps Research Institute, La Jolla

Human embryonic stem cells that have not yet been turned into specialised cell types are not suitable for transplant into a patient as they may grow unchecked and / or become the wrong cell type or types. There is a risk that these unspecialised cells may also form a type of benign tumour known as a teratoma. This collaboration will develop specific tools and quality control measures for scientists to identify and remove the rare unwanted cells from the specialised cells that are destined for use in the treatment of injury or disease, therefore increasing the safety of future cell therapies and overcoming a major barrier to the advancement of stem cell treatments. The project will be led by Dr Andrew Laslett (Australia) and Dr Jeanne Loring (California).

Monash University and Novocell Inc, San Diego

Human embryonic stem cells have great potential as the starting material for future treatments using cellular therapies. For example, insulin dependent diabetes is an illness that may one day be treated using a stem cell based therapy. However, there are both scientific and safety hurdles still to be overcome. This project will develop standardised tests to ensure the safety of future embryonic stem cell based products which may contribute to stem cell based treatments for a range of illnesses including diabetes. The project will be led by Professor Ed Stanley and Professor Andrew Elefanty (Australia) and Dr Justine Cunningham (California).

Australian Stem Cell Centre

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