Stem cell research provides basic biology and clinical insight

The 10-year anniversary of the Yale Stem Cell Center marks much progress and promise.

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Haifan Lin, PhD, founding director of the Yale Stem Cell Center. Photo credit: Robert A. Lisak

November 28, 2016

When we officially founded the Yale Stem Cell Center in 2006, stem cells represented a new field in biology with the extraordinary potential to transform medicine. A decade later, under the exceptional leadership of founding director, Haifan Lin, PhD, and associate director, Diane Krause, MD, PhD, the center’s researchers have logged impressive discoveries and achievements, significantly deepening our understanding of fundamental aspects of basic biology, as well as making progress in the field of regenerative medicine.

When the center was established in 2006, only a handful of faculty members researched stem cells in their labs. Today, Yale’s is one of the largest stem cell centers in the world, with 93 full-time faculty members located around campus and hundreds of graduate and postdoctoral researchers. During its existence, its members have generated $450 million in NIH funding related to stem cell research, published more than 853 papers in leading journals, filed 330 patents, and obtained 49 industrial licenses. Through stem cell-related grants, the center has created approximately 214 high-tech jobs.

Early on, Haifan made a strategic decision to focus on the development and biology of stem cells in order to provide a rationale for the design of experiments and therapies that would address disease. Today we are reaping the rewards of this approach. More than 200 research projects are being conducted at the center, ranging from basic research to clinical trials. The center’s rapid growth extends well beyond simple research findings. It reflects the pace of discovery and integration of stem cell research within the fields of genomics and proteomics, human genetics, computational biology, biomedical engineering, and nanotechnology.

As we celebrate the center’s first 10 years, it is worthwhile to reflect upon the many notable achievements that have taken place during this time. Here are just a few, chosen from the center’s many noteworthy accomplishments:

  • The discovery of a novel class of small noncoding RNAs called piRNAs, touted by Science as one of the ‘top breakthroughs’ for 2006.
  • The use of stem cells to build artificial lungs that were successfully transplanted into rats, recognized by TIME magazine as one of the ‘50 Best Inventions’ of 2010.
  • FDA approval of a cell-based therapy that was used to repair a young patient’s heart defect.
  • The discovery that the fast cell cycle is a key determining factor for transforming ordinary cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which revealed an unexpected determining factor for cell fate reprogramming.
  • The detection of a new form of DNA modification, or methylation, with crucial function in regulating embryonic stem cells.

In the years ahead, it remains important to study stem cells and their enormous potential to replace damaged tissue and provide cures for chronic conditions rather than medications that only address symptoms. Research on stem cells will no doubt provide insight into development and developmental anomalies. Additionally, we are now learning that with many cancers, it is the stem cells that are the real culprits.

Connecticut lawmakers made history in 2005 when they set aside $100 million in state funding for stem cell research, at the rate of $10 million per year through 2015. We are gratified that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy recently extended that same rate of funding through 2018. It will help ensure that the impressive work of the center—and its continued focus on allowing basic science to inform translational research—continues to progress on many fronts.