Surgery Chair Diana Farmer receives national award for work on spina bifida


UC Davis Health Department of Surgery Distinguished Professor and Chair Diana Farmer is one of 11 recipients of the 2022 Harrington Scholar-Innovator Awards. The awards are given by the Harrington Discovery Institute at University Hospitals (UH) of Cleveland, Ohio.

The scholar awards support a diverse set of drug discovery projects, including new treatments for pulmonary diseases, COVID-19, multiple cancers, corneal disease, hepatitis, and acquired spinal cord injuries. They include grants of at least $100,000, with the opportunity to qualify for up to $1.1 million. 

“The 2022 Scholar-Innovator class represents an exciting portfolio of drugs-in-the-making with the potential to significantly improve human health. We are honored to support these extraordinary physician-scientists,” said Jonathan S. Stamler, president of the Harrington Discovery Institute and Robert S. and Sylvia K. Reitman Family Foundation. Stamler is also a distinguished professor of cardiovascular innovation and professor of medicine and of biochemistry at University Hospitals and Case Western Reserve University.

Farmer recognized for spina bifida work

Nearly 1.5 million Americans suffer from some form of spinal cord injury, which can vary in severity from sensory deficits to irreversible paralysis. Spina bifida is a congenital form of spinal cord injury caused by the incomplete closure of the neural tube during early fetal development.

Farmer’s research has produced a unique “patch” engineered from placental mesenchymal stem cells. It is applied to a baby’s exposed spinal cord during an in-utero surgery. In animal studies, the researchers found the stem cell patch and surgical repair was effective and safe.

In 2021, Farmer launched the first-in-human clinical trial to test the procedure and patch  for the treatment of spina bifida.

Farmer’s award will support further development of this technology for adult acquired spinal cord injury. The application of placental stem cells for such injuries remains largely unexplored. Preclinical studies showed that placental mesenchymal stem cells seeded on an extracellular matrix scaffold and directly applied to the injury site protected neurons and preserved the spinal cord tissue.

Farmer and team recently established a unilateral cervical spinal cord contusion model. Her study will evaluate the treatment for acquired spinal cord injury. If successful, this multifunctional, stem cell-based regenerative treatment may lay the foundation for future clinical therapeutics to potentially improve the quality of life for these patients.

Harrington Discovery Institute was established in 2012 to accelerate the development of new treatments to address significant unmet needs in medicine and society. Harrington Scholar-Innovators are accomplished physician-scientists whose research demonstrates innovation, creativity, and potential for clinical impact.

Since its founding, Harrington Discovery Institute has supported 162 drugs in the making, 64 institutions, 31 new company launches, 17 clinical candidates, and 12 licenses to pharma.