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UC Santa Cruz Center for Live Cell Genomics Wins $13.5M NIH Grant

NEW YORK – Researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz Genomics Institute are forming a new Center for Live Cell Genomics with the assistance of a $13.5 million NIH grant.

The new center will focus on designing large-scale and long-term genomic studies of disease processes in living cells and complex tissues. Unlike genomic methods such as RNA sequencing that necessarily kill the cells used in an experiment, researchers at the Center for Live Cell Genomics aim to find ways to study gene expression changes in cells and tissues without having to kill them in the process.

The researchers will employ advanced 3D tissue culture methods and lab-on-a-chip technologies to build an inexpensive, automated, scalable, and internet-connected system that includes remote control and analysis capabilities.

"With advances in stem cell biology, we can now grow highly complex, three-dimensional tissues that mimic either developing organs, like the brain organoids my lab works with, or that mimic tumors for cancer research," Sofie Salama, a professor of bioengineering involved in the center at UCSC, said in a statement. "Understanding these long-term cultures as they develop and get more complex over time requires a paradigm shift in our experimental approach."

Topics that the center plans to investigate include interrogating the genes that contribute most and are most specific to human brain development, how those change in neurodevelopmental disease and brain injury, the specific molecular pathways that become disrupted in pediatric cancer cases, and how to test pathway-specific treatments in patient-specific tissue models.

Salama, for example, is collaborating with Mircea Teodorescu, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and others to establish better methods for growing brain organoids.

In a separate project, Teodorescu and colleagues have developed a low-cost "picroscope" microscopy system that provides continuous imaging of 24-well culture plates through which researchers can monitor changes in growth and morphology of live cultures.

Center-related UCSC researchers are also experimenting with a noninvasive genomic analysis approach centered on isolating and sequencing exosomes.

"We are creating a disruptive technology with an open-source bent to it, which we hope will ignite a revolution in biotechnology comparable to what has happened in information technology," said David Haussler, professor of biomolecular engineering and director of the UCSC Genomics Institute. Haussler is co-principal investigator on the NIH grant alongside Holger Schmidt, a UCSC professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The Genomics Institute benefited from an anonymous $8.5 million grant to fund a range of projects, as well as to upgrade the facility, in 2019.