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Dr. Britney Pennington in the lab

Envisioning the Future of Regenerative Medicine

For bright-eyed Dr. Britney Pennington, putting on a lab coat is a privilege, not a burden. “We’re at the dawn of the age of regenerative medicine,” she exclaims. “It makes me really excited to see our lab and understand that we’re paving the way.”

Dr. Pennington’s sometimes 16-hour work days are worth it, she says, because she has the “end in mind.” That end is a therapy which would use stem cells to treat the blinding disease, macular degeneration, a condition posing a detrimental threat to the quality of life for millions of people: “[they] are no longer able to recognize faces, read books, or drive,” Pennington states.

Pennington’s research, under the mentorship of Professor Dennis Clegg who serves as Co-Director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering, contributes to developing a therapy which would restore vision to those suffering from macular degeneration. “If this therapy works,” Clegg posited, “we’ll be able to help millions of patients that right now can’t do anything and are losing their vision. And that excites us and motivates us to move forward.”

Regenerative bioengineering is nothing new to UC Santa Barbara; in fact, Clegg’s team seeks not only to address macular degeneration but also diabetic retinopathy, a diabetes complication that damages the blood vessels of the retina. These medical concerns are at the forefront of Clegg’s research, as nearly 10 million Americans suffer from macular degeneration and people with all types of diabetes are at risk for diabetic retinopathy. And while other institutions are engaged in similar research, UC Santa Barbara’s approach is entirely innovative: “[UC Santa Barbara] encourages collaboration across disciplines,” Clegg states. “[We] bring different talents together in novel ways.” 

Indeed, UC Santa Barbara’s interdisciplinary trademark is what sets it apart from other institutions and has prompted savvy investors to take a second look. “For me, philanthropy is the best use of resources,” said Amgen founder William K. Bowes. “I've come to respect UC Santa Barbara as a very important technological institution. My firm has used Santa Barbara technologies to start companies, and that has enabled me to get a pretty good look at what's going on. My respect level has been going up and up and up over the years. That's all it takes!” he exclaimed.

 Bowes’ confidence in UC Santa Barbara inspired him to establish the Ruth Garland Chair for the Director of the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering. His enthusiasm for Clegg’s research was such that it spawned an additional gift in 2012, the $5M Garland Initiative for Vision Research Fund, which provides current-use funding for Clegg’s research on age-related macular degeneration and diabetic retinopathy.

 Bowes’ investment was just the beginning; in 2013, donors Richard ’67 and Kathryn ’68 Breaux made an investment of their own, devising a gift that made the most sense for them. Their Richard and Kathryn Gee Breaux Fellowship in Vision Research supports a qualified graduate student in the Center for Stem Cell Biology and Engineering, formerly held by Breaux Fellow Britney Pennington. “[The] fellowship gives us a conduit to support [Clegg’s] work,” Richard stated, and when they met Dr. Pennington, they knew that they had given the “dollars to the right cause.”

 “The more we learn about what’s happening [at UCSB] and the more we’re introduced to people that are doing this work,” said Richard, “it’s like a magnet. You’re drawn in by the enthusiasm. Once you have a taste of that, you just keep going back for more.”

 Philanthropists like the Bowes and Breauxs are enabling UC Santa Barbara to employ interdisciplinary approaches to produce innovative results. The work happening in Clegg’s laboratory is but a taste of the difference that donor contributions are making. These and other investments begin at the university and ultimately impact people’s everyday lives.