As reported by the New Haven Register, January 29, 2009.

UConn Stem Cell Research Opens Doors

By Mary E. O’Leary

The University of Connecticut has joined the ranks of an elite group of universities by creating two human embryonic stem cell lines, which they say are more reliable for research because they are younger.

Until now, research was being conducted on stem cell lines created more than a decade ago before the former Bush administration ruled out the use of federal grants to create new lines.

The stem cells are derived from blastocysts — embryos less than a week old — that are a small cluster of cells capable of forming any of the body’s 220 cell types, including blood, bone and nerve tissue.

Placed in petri dishes with certain nutrients, the clusters grow into cell lines, which are colonies of genetically identical cells.

Dr. Ren-He Xu, director of UConn’s Stem Cell Core laboratory, said Wednesday the technology to create new stem cell lines from human embryos has existed for some time.

The significance of the UConn lines are that they have gone through the tough ethical and regulatory review process, which took a year to complete. The lines are now available for free distribution to academic researchers at Yale University and Wesleyan University, in addition to UConn.

“The new human embryonic stem cell lines created by UConn have made Connecticut one of the few states that have this capacity,” said Dr. Haifan Lin, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center.

Other academic centers in the country that have created new lines, which have less chance of carrying the genetic mutations and chromosomal abnormalities present in older lines, include the University of Wisconsin - Madison, Harvard University and the University of California - San Francisco.

“This whole endeavor is a highly significant event,” said Paul Pescatello, president and chief executive officer of Connecticut United for Research Excellence, the center of Connecticut’s bioscience cluster.

He said UConn now has the bricks and mortar, the research team and the collaborative relationships that gives it an edge in this developing field.

“Creating the stem cells is the foundation” to advancing that work, said Pescatello.

Connecticut was the third state in the nation, behind California and New Jersey, to provide its own money — $100 million in 2005 — for a decade of stem cell research, which it hopes at some point turns into new treatments for debilitating chronic diseases.

Pescatello said no one knows where stem cell research will evolve, but one concept is to some day create a custom line of cells specific to one person. “Having the ability to now create an assembly line of cells,” such as the work at UConn, is the first step.

Laura Grabel, professor of biology at Wesleyan, said in addition to being younger, the new stem cell lines are also free of animal products, which makes them more useful.

The UConn announcement comes five days after the federal government approved the first test therapy for spinal cord injuries derived from human embryonic stem cells. Geron, a biotechnology company in California that also financed work isolating the first embryonic stem cells a decade ago, will undertake the experiments.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell said three years ago some questioned whether the state’s commitment to stem cell research was worth the expense. She said Wednesday’s announcement answers that question “with a resounding ‘absolutely.’”

Xu said they have been able to train 100 scientists inside Connecticut and at the University of Massachusetts with the help of state stem cell funds. The embryos used to make the new stem cell lines came from fertility clinics that donated them for research with the informed, written consent of patients, Xu said.

Xu said researchers at UConn also have established a “genetic database” for the cell lines that will allow them to determine whether they remain normal as further testing continues. “This will make sure any results they find are reliable,” Xu said.

The UConn lab director said newer lines of embryonic stem cells “guarantee a longer window of opportunity to manipulate the cells,” as researchers try to determine how the cells turn into specific tissues.

Lin at Yale University School of Medicine said he is looking forward to using the UConn embryonic stem cell lines and is “developing other stem cell technologies that are aimed at complementing UConn’s achievements and maximizing the effect of the state’s funding.”