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Philanthropy at work

Michael Kyba, Ph.D.

Private gifts lift two U researchers’ work to a higher level

Philanthropy has helped to shape the careers of University of Minnesota stem cell scientists Michael Kyba, Ph.D., and Rita Perlingeiro, Ph.D.

“We’ve had a lot of good interactions with philanthropy,” Kyba says. “It has really changed the trajectory of my career for the better.”

When Kyba and Perlingeiro were working at the University of Texas Southwestern in Dallas, the Dallas-based Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation targeted their laboratories with generous seed support, enabling them to expand their stem cell research into the fields of muscle regeneration and muscular dystrophy.

And when Kyba and Perlingeiro, who are married, moved their labs to the University of Minnesota in 2008, the same foundation made a $250,000 gift to each through the Minnesota Medical Foundation, helping to transition their research programs and providing opportunities for further growth.

Rita Perlingeiro, Ph.D. “We feel extremely honored and fortunate to have received the support of the Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation,” Perlingeiro says. “Their generous donation has allowed us to undertake an innovative … and intellectually rewarding project involving stem cells and muscular dystrophy.”

And their research has been greatly successful. Perlingeiro’s lab team has been able to essentially “instruct” embryonic stem cells to make muscle cells instead of other types of cells using a gene called PAX3. When those muscle cells were injected into the injured muscles of mice that have muscular dystrophy, the cells not only helped to grow muscle tissue but also improved muscle function.

Her team has shown that this approach can restore muscle function in mouse models of both recessive and dominant forms of muscular dystrophy.

To help steer future cure-focused research down the right path, Kyba and his team are studying how the gene variation that causes a type of muscular dystrophy called facioscapulohumeral dystrophy (FSHD) causes muscle loss.

By removing muscle cells from people who have muscular dystrophy and reprogramming them to become induced pluripotent stem cells (which are believed to be able to form all types of tissue), the team expects to gain insight into the genetic basis for this form of muscular dystrophy and hopes to find ways to genetically repair that disease-causing defect.

Support from the Dr. Bob and Jean Smith Foundation has essentially created two self-sustaining research programs, Kyba adds. The research funded by this philanthropy has resulted in major National Institutes of Health (NIH) research project grants in each laboratory, plus a collaborative $2 million stimulus research grant through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

“If you think of philanthropy in investment terms,” Kyba says, “our philanthropic support has netted a 200 percent dividend in the form of additional funds for muscle regeneration and FSHD research from the NIH. And our plan is to keep that dividend growing.”

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