On the second floor of the Yale Stem Cell Center is a machine that Haifan Lin, Ph.D., the center’s director, likes to show to visitors. This $1 million metal box can do overnight what less than a decade ago would have taken hundreds of scientists years to accomplish—sequence a human genome. Already, Lin says, this 3-year-old machine is showing its age. Newer machines are even faster.
The machine is crucial to the work to which Lin has devoted his life, the study of stem cells. A decade ago, when the Yale Stem Cell Center was founded, this new field, “the ultimate frontier in biology and medicine,” offered untold promise in any number of areas. Stem cells could reveal the secrets of how human bodies develop in the womb. Learning more about how stem cells differentiate and become bone, muscle, and other tissues could yield clues to controlling diseases. Stem cells have been used to test new drugs before they’re tried out on patients. And stem cells could generate healthy new tissues and organs to treat disease without provoking an immune response.
Since its founding, the center’s scientists have transplanted biomedically engineered lungs and tracheae made from stem cells into mice. They have sought cures for Parkinson’s disease in stem cell research. They have studied links between stem cells and stroke. Scientists are trying to use stem cells to create retinal epithelial cells. Research into cancer stem cells could yield a treatment that would stop the disease at its source.
The potential of stem cells seems limitless, and the Yale Stem Cell Center is poised to pursue that promise.