This summer marks the second anniversary of the opening of the Yale Stem Cell Center (YSCC). By any measure, say YSCC Director Haifan Lin, Ph.D., professor of cell biology, and Associate Director Diane S. Krause, M.D., Ph.D., professor of laboratory medicine and pathology, the center has been a smashing success.
Before the center opened its doors, there was only one laboratory at Yale involved in human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. Today, there are 12, an enormous leap forward for the medical school and the state of Connecticut, according to Lin, who calls stem cells “the next frontier of biomedical research.”
This increase in capacity is critical because hESCs have many advantages over the so-called adult stem cells that can be gathered from tissues such as bone marrow or skin cells: hESCs are easier to collect, they can be grown in large numbers and they in principle can differentiate into any of the cell types that make up the diverse tissues—heart, bone, brain, muscle, and more—of the human body. Although very recent advances in reprogramming adult cells to act more like embryonic stem cells may ultimately help bypass ethical issues, for now, hESCs remain the gold standard against which reprogrammed cells are measured, and the best hope for future medical advances.
The YSCC’s state-of-the-art facilities have enabled more researchers to enter the field by helping them scale both the regulatory and technical hurdles involved in stem cell research, Lin says. The center, which occupies the second floor of the new research building at 10 Amistad St., consists of four “cores”: stem cell culture, directed by Caihong Qiu, Ph.D.; imaging; cell sorting and analysis; and genomics.
Because the space used for hESC research is not supported by federal funds, researchers there are not restricted by government regulations that limit support for hESC research to an approved list of already established stem cell lines. “So far, we have been using the approved cell lines, but we are capable of deriving our own lines, or using non-approved cells lines here,” Lin says of the YSCC. “This building is like a Shangri-La for stem cell research.”
Part of what made the center possible is a 2005 state law that established Connecticut as a safe haven for hESC research and established the Connecticut Stem Cell Research Program in the state’s Department of Public Health, which will provide $100 million to fund hESC research over 10 years. In the first year of that initiative, Yale received $7.7 million, of which $2.5 million went to Lin to establish the stem cell culture core facility. Krause received $1 million to expand her work on leukemia to include studies on hESCs. Michael Snyder, Ph.D., professor of molecular, cellular and developmental biology and of molecular biophysics and biochemistry, received $3.8 million to investigate how hESCs differentiate into brain cells. Three other researchers also received smaller seed grants to support new projects.
In the second round of grants, announced in March, Yale received $5.6 million out of the total $10 million put up by the state. The YSCC itself received $1.8 million, and the rest was awarded to 11 faculty members based on original research proposals.
Among the researchers supported by the latest state funding are D. Eugene Redmond Jr., M.D., who received $1.12 million to support his work using hESCs to replace the neurons that die off in Parkinson’s disease. Dianqing Wu, Ph.D., professor of pharmacology, Laura E. Niklason, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of anesthesiology and biomedical engineering, and Flora M. Vaccarino, M.D., associate professor of neurobiology, each received nearly $500,000 to study heart, blood vessel and neuronal stem cells, respectively. In addition, seven other labs received smaller seed grants to work on both basic and clinical applications of stem cells.
The benefits of the YSCC go beyond Yale. The mission of the center, says Lin, is to provide a centralized source of technical expertise to the community, including colleagues at other institutions. Researchers at the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan University, who have also shared in the state’s stem cell funds, have access to the Yale core facilities for their work.
Besides its new labs, the stem cell center boasts 38 affiliated faculty members from departments across Yale, and six months ago Lin and Krause welcomed their first new faculty recruit, Natalia Ivanova, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics and the Robert T. McCluskey, M.D. Yale Scholar. Ivanova is a leader in the use of gene expression profiling to trace the pathways by which undifferentiated embryonic stem cells progress to mature cell types. Much of her groundbreaking work had been done with mouse stem cells, but funds from Connecticut’s initiative are allowing her to expand her studies to hESCs. Ivanova’s work exemplifies the philosophy of the center and its founders—to keep a focus on basic questions of stem cell biology, with the idea that this will lead to clinical applications.
As Lin explains, “We actually know very little about stem cells, and that makes me feel that some people are jumping ahead too fast. If we don’t know how they work, how can we harness their potential?” This vision dovetails well with the medical school’s strength in basic research, and makes the YSCC a unique player in the stem cell field. “Few other places have been focusing on really understanding the inner workings of stem cells,” he says. “We think we can and believe that by doing that we will generate more impact and speed the development of cures.”
In that effort, state support has been a critical factor, but it is only the beginning. “We will be eternally grateful for the support from the state, but we have to think of their contribution as seed money,” Lin says. “Stem cell research in still in its infancy. Our center is a new baby that has been born, but now we need to feed it and let it grow up. One thing we know is that this baby is full of potential.”
Scientists at the Yale Stem Cell Center believe that understand the most basic mechanisms of stem cell biology will lead to more successful clinical applications. The potential impact of stem cell research on human health is enormous. You can help accelerate the pace of this research by supporting Yale's scientists and clinicians. The gift opportunities listed below can fund work in stem cell research or any other area of donor interest.
$100,000 or more
To support focused research conduced by teams of faculty and graduate students
$100,00 or more
To expand and upgrade technical resources and fund specialized staff
To support a newly recruited young investigator, like stem cell researcher Natalia Ivanova; gifts are eligible for 100 percent in matching funds from Yale University
To assist a distinguished faculty member's research and scholarly activities
For information about these or other gift opportunities, visit www.yaletomorrow.yale.edu/medicine or contact Jancy Houck, associate vice president for development and director of medical development, at (203) 436-8560.