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For stem cell researcher, Connecticut’s initiative offers a new avenue for progress

Photo by Daine Krause
Cells culled from mouse bone marrow differentiate into blood cells.

In her Yale laboratory in 2001, Diane S. Krause, M.D., Ph.D., surprised the scientific community with her discovery that adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow of mice can produce liver, lung, intestine and skin cells. To her dismay, her studies and similar findings have provided ammunition to opponents of embryonic stem cell research, who have used her results to argue that research with stem cells derived from human embryos is unnecessary. Speaking in January at a hearing of the Connecticut General Assembly, the associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology said, “To close off this avenue of research based on the early promise of adult stem cells is to play the odds with people’s lives.” She called upon the legislature to support both adult and embryonic stem cell research in the state.

In May the state legislature did just that as it approved a bill to commit $100 million to embryonic stem cell research over 10 years. At a ceremony in Farmington a few weeks later, with Krause and medical school Dean Robert J. Alpern, M.D., looking on, Gov. M. Jodi Rell signed the bill into law. The bill’s passage is expected to boost this research at Yale and the University of Connecticut. The legislation establishes a two-step process in which experts in both science and ethics review requests for funding.

Unlike adult stem cells, which have shown a limited ability to develop into other cells, embryonic stem cells can generate virtually any type of cell in the body. Biologists believe they have the potential to help treat diseases such as diabetes and Alzheimer’s and to repair the spine, heart and other organs. Along with Alpern, Krause advised the General Assembly as it drafted legislation to make Connecticut a “safe haven” for embryonic stem cell research.

This field of study has been limited in the United States by guidelines established by President Bush that restrict federal funding exclusively to specific embryonic stem cell lines established prior to August 9, 2001. Supporters of the research contend that many of those pre-existing lines have been tainted by cells from other animals, such as mice, and that the limited number of lines hampers opportunities for study.

The controversial research received a major boost last year after California voters approved $3 billion in funding for stem cell research over 10 years. New Jersey’s acting governor, Richard J. Codey, announced in January that his state would invest an additional $150 million in its stem cell institute, created in 2004 with $11.5 million in startup funding.

In her Yale office, Krause pointed to an increasingly competitive research environment. “I’ve been contacted by states that have announced funding to see if I’d be willing to move,” she said. “Connecticut doesn’t want to lose the opportunity and researchers.”

Krause is spearheading the effort to establish a stem cell program at Yale, and is one of more than 20 scientists across the university doing stem cell-related work. Recruitment of a senior leader for the Yale program began this past winter with an international search and will likely be followed by the recruitment of five to seven additional faculty members whose work is focused solely on stem cell biology.

Once established, the new program will likely have investigators performing both adult and embryonic stem cell research, with separate laboratories for any research using embryonic cell lines not approved for federal funding. “No one can predict,” Krause said, “which lines of investigation will lead to development of effective and safe treatments. We can say with 100 percent certainty, though, that what we learn from embryonic stem cells will be useful for developing new therapies.” Although she does not currently work with embryonic stem cells, she said, “I want the freedom to use embryonic stem cells as a tool when I need to use that tool.”