As reported by The Hartford Courant, January 29, 2009.

UConn's New Stem Cell Lines Boost Health Research in State

By Arielle Levin Becker

University of Connecticut researchers said Wednesday they have created two new lines of human embryonic stem cells — the raw material needed for cutting-edge research that could hold the key to the treatment of a host of diseases.

The breakthrough is significant because it will allow UConn to supply researchers in Connecticut and elsewhere the material necessary for research that scientists believe could lead to advances ranging from the repair of bones shattered in war to cures for diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's.

The ability to generate new stem cell lines, seen by officials as a major success for the state's $100 million stem cell program, puts UConn in a select group of institutions. Ren-He Xu, director of UConn's Stem Cell Core laboratory, said he believes the university is only the fourth in the country with the capability.

"We're up to snuff with really a few academic labs in the country," said Marc Lalande, director of the university's Stem Cell Institute.

Embryonic stem cells carry the potential for major advances in treatment of a wide range of diseases and conditions. Because embryonic stem cells can become any type of cell, scientists believe they could be used to replace cells damaged by injury or disease, such as neurons that could help Parkinson's patients or pancreatic cells that could allow a diabetic's body to produce insulin.

Before scientists were able to generate new stem cell lines, there were only a limited number of them available for researchers to use, and those lines were old and less than ideal in quality. UConn's ability to create new lines of stem cells means that scientists in Connecticut will have access to a local supply of high-quality, young stem cell lines, which gives researchers a larger window of time to work on them.

The new stem cell lines have already been made available to researchers from UConn, Wesleyan and Yale.

Creating new stem cell lines can help research in a wide range of ways.

It can be difficult, for example, for scientists studying Alzheimer's disease to get enough uniform brain cells to test potential treatments on, since they must rely on cells from the brains of dead people. Being able to make new brain cells — or other types of cells — would take away a major obstacle to research on drugs and conditions.

At UConn, a major area of research is on bone and cartilage, looking at how human embryonic stem cells could be used to repair large bone injuries sustained in war, or cartilage damage caused by arthritis, Lalande said.

At Yale, researchers are exploring a theory that cancer growth in patients is the result of specific cancer stem cells that are able to grow rapidly. Being able to identify and kill those cells could prove a major advance in fighting cancer, said Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of CURE — Connecticut United for Research Excellence — a nonprofit that advocates for research in the life sciences.

State leaders praised the development of the new stem cell lines as validation of the state's 2005 decision to invest $100 million in stem cell research over 10 years. Because former President George W. Bush restricted the use of federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research, the state money allowed Connecticut researchers to work in a cutting-edge area of science that their counterparts in all but a handful of other states could not.

Now, at a time when the state's economic prospects look bleak and policymakers worry about the exodus of young, educated workers from Connecticut, stem cell research is offering a bit of hope. The state stem cell money has allowed Connecticut to lure top scientists — including Xu, Ge Lin, the postdoctoral fellow who created the stem cell lines, and Haifan Lin, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center — and has spurred research and biotech business efforts.

"Instead of having a brain drain where all of our best and brightest in Connecticut were going out of the country or to other states, we started to receive some of the best and the brightest in Connecticut," said Warren Wollschlager, who administers the state stem cell research program as the chief of the office of research and development at the state Department of Public Health.

That could soon pay off in even bigger ways.

President Barack Obama is expected to lift the restriction on federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research, and officials and researchers say Connecticut's head start will give it a major advantage in competing for federal research money.

"We have a track record now, which I think will be looked upon very favorably in Washington," Pescatello said.

So far, the $29.6 million in state stem cell money has been used to build the infrastructure for research facilities, recruit faculty and fund research by scientists from UConn, Wesleyan and Yale. Wollschlager said the state program has begun receiving more private sector applications and that they are improving in quality.

Already, businesses related to stem cells are developing in the state, Pescatello said. One company getting started in the New Haven area is planning to use stem cells to create a uniform supply of cells to test new drugs on, Pescatello said.

UConn's new stem cell lines, named CT1 and CT2, were derived from embryos from a fertility clinic, donated with the consent of the patients, according to UConn.