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A decade of stem cell research at the School of Medicine

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Spring


German biologists first named and described stem cells late in the 19th century. More than 100 years later, scientists continue to rely on these cells to unlock puzzles of the origins of human development and to advance clinical treatment for diseases that were once considered incurable. A decade ago, the Yale Stem Cell Center opened its doors to pursue that field of research.

Yale Medicine spoke with Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., Ensign Professor of Medicine, about the importance of human stem cell research and why much in the field remains to be explored.

Why did you decide to open the Yale Stem Cell Center in 2006?
Stem cells represented a new area in biology with extraordinary potential to transform medicine. Understanding human embryonic stem cells has provided insights into many areas of biology, including development, tissue regeneration, and cancer. It is too early to know the full impact that understanding stem cells will have on medical care, but progress has been impressive.

Why is it important to study stem cells?
Stem cells have enormous potential to replace damaged tissue. Research on stem cells provides insight into development and developmental anomalies. In addition, we are now learning that with many cancers, it is the stem cells that are the real culprits.

Which aspect of stem cell research do you see changing most rapidly in the next five years?
There will be continuing progress on many fronts. We must perform high-quality research that leads to a thorough understanding of the biology of stem cells so that they can be used therapeutically with maximal efficacy and safety.

Stem cell research became politicized early on, partly due to the use of human embryos. Have we moved past the politics? If not, how can we?
I am not sure that we have moved past the politics. There will always be ethical issues related to human embryonic stem cells and we must pay careful attention to these concerns. We should also keep dialogues open across a diverse group of individuals, from physicians to bioethicists to cell biologists, who contribute knowledge and guidance to the field.

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