Six years ago, Jason Thomson learned that his 13-year position in research at Pfizer would come to an end. He was among 1,100 employees laid off at the company’s drug development laboratory in Groton. He feared that his career was in jeopardy. He didn’t want to move his family and worried he wouldn’t be able to land a comparable job in Connecticut.
But things worked out much better than he expected. “I was fortunate,” says Thomson, a resident of Colchester. “I was out of work for just over six months.” Today, he’s a lab manager at the Yale Stem Cell Center in New Haven. He plays a key role at the center, overseeing the preparation of stem cells that other researchers use to pursue their studies.
Thomson’s personal journey illustrates an economic shift in Connecticut. Over the past decade, several large pharmaceutical companies have either closed their doors here or cut hundreds of jobs from their local payrolls. These moves pose a threat to the state economy. For Connecticut to thrive in the future, say state political, academic and business leaders, more jobs are needed in groundbreaking biomedical research and a home-grown biotech industry.
The 10-year-old Yale Stem Cell Center, which is within Yale School of Medicine, is an example of how this can be done. It has already created more than 200 jobs; involves more than 450 Yale faculty, post-docs and students; has produced more than 350 patent applications; and has three therapies currently being tested in clinical trials. And, because this type of research typically takes many years to have maximum impact, it’s likely that the best is yet to come.
So far, three clinical trials are testing drugs based on scientific advances produced by Stem Cell Center researchers. They include using cell-based tissue engineering to cure congenital heart defects, and using skeletal stem cells to treat stroke and spinal cord injuries.
Here's an infographic explaining how the Yale Stem Cell Center contributes to society.
Yale School of Medicine plays a critical role in fostering a fast-growing bioscience industry in the New Haven area. Already, upwards of 40 biotech and medical device companies employ more than 5,000 people in greater New Haven. “This is about faculty members and researchers making breakthrough discoveries and passing them along to business experts to take to the market,” says Susan Froshauer, president of Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE), the bioscience industry’s advocacy group.
At Pfizer, Thomson’s job was to determine the safety profile of drugs using embryonic stem cells from mice. The New York native, who studied animal science at Cornell University, loved the company and his job, but he wasn’t surprised when the bad news came. He had seen evidence that a retrenchment in the pharmaceutical industry was underway. For instance, just a few years earlier, Bayer Healthcare began shutting down its West Haven facility, which displaced about 1,000 workers. (The sprawling facility is now Yale University’s West Campus.)
When Thomson received the layoff notice, leaving Connecticut and moving to another state wasn’t an attractive option. He didn’t want to disrupt his wife’s career as a tenured high school teacher, nor the lives of his two young daughters.
He recalled hearing about efforts in the state to foster its strengths in bioscience—in part by funding university research. Thomson began monitoring university websites. After a few nervous months, he got his big break. The Yale Stem Cell Center posted what he considered a dream job. Thomson applied—and got it.
He’s now a respected leader and colleague at the center. Caihong Qiu, Ph.D., who is the technical director of the Center’s two core science labs, says researchers there admire Thomson for his deep scientific knowledge and helpful manner. “Jason is the face of the core. He is very thorough and dedicated,” Qiu says.
At the center, Thomson grows stem cells so scientists can conduct experiments to better understand the underlying cause of diseases, or to learn how to build new human organs. He provides feedback on study designs, orders lab supplies, and oversees the nitrogen tanks and other machinery that keep 10 years’ worth of cells frozen. He calls the core labs the “special forces” unit within the center. No matter how difficult the task is, they get it done.
Thomson loves working with stem cells because they contain clues to many unanswered questions surrounding how humans grow and develop. The long lab hours and a two-hour round-trip daily commute from his home in Colchester don’t dampen his enthusiasm. Says Thompson: “You have to love what you do for a living, and I do.”