As published as an editorial in The Hartford Courant, February 20, 2009.

Stem Cell Central

Connecticut's investment in stem cell research — $100 million over 10 years — is paying off.

Last month, University of Connecticut researchers revealed that they have created two new lines of human embryonic stem cells, hailed as a major success for the program. Only four universities in the nation have that capability.

The cell lines, or colonies, are self-perpetuating and will enable UConn to supply other researchers, including their colleagues at Wesleyan and Yale, with these building blocks of human life.

"Blank" stem cells found in human embryos have the unique ability to grow into any of the body's cell types. Scientists hope that understanding how they work will permit them to unlock the mysteries of diseases such as cancer, Alzheimer's and diabetes. Study of these generic cells may one day make it possible to replicate tissue — such as bone, neurons and heart cells — to repair diseased or damaged organs.

The science is controversial because embryos must be destroyed in the process. A restriction on federal support for this research has been in effect since August 2001.

Although there is hope that the Obama administration will lift the prohibition, Connecticut's courage to take its own initiative positions it as a leader in this promising field.

UConn researchers who created the new cell lines used embryos from fertility clinics donated with the patients' permission. Other researchers working on stem cell technology with state grants have had success with less controversial methods, producing stem cells by "reprogramming" adult skin or blood cells, for example, to revert back to their original generic form.

The stem cell program has attracted top talent, including Ren-He Xu, director of the laboratory that produced the new cell lines. It also has boosted Connecticut's profile as a pioneer in biotech. Not a bad start.