Headlines

As reported by The Hartford Courant, March 25, 2011.

Stem Cell Research: 'Sexy, Hot Stuff'

Connecticut on the Leading Edge

By Rick Green

All you cynics about the potential for a glowing economic future for Connecticut, meet Gordon Carmichael.

A half-dozen years ago, he was a successful tenured professor at the University of Connecticut Health Center, quietly specializing in the study of cancer in mice and living the life of a contented academic researcher.

But Carmichael's career jerked into high gear after the state committed to a 10-year, $100 million investment in stem cell research in 2005. He applied for and received one of the first state grants. Nothing has been the same since.

Six years later, Carmichael's inbox fills up with requests from researchers who want to work in his lab. During the past three years, his students have produced 11 major scientific papers. Federal research money is coming in, equaling the grants he has won from the state. This year, along with other researchers at Yale and UConn, he reported significant new findings about how stem cells regenerate, which could lead to new discoveries into how to repair damaged tissue.

"We have put ourselves on the international map,'' Carmichael told me when I met him at StemCONN 2011, a symposium for the research community where he was introduced as the "Connecticut Poster Boy" for stem cell research. "It leads to more money, more people. We have become a much more appealing place."

"I'd never thought much about stem cells,'' Carmichael modestly told me when I phoned him at the lab a few days later, reminding me that there are dozens of researchers like him. "Studying a mouse is not the same as a human stem cell that is creating human organs."

"It completely changed the direction of my lab and made it more exciting," Carmichael said. "It made it more thrilling. It's sexy, hot stuff. It has really energized us."

A lot of this stem cell stuff is lost on me, but I understand sexy and hot. There's an important and obvious lesson as we try to figure out how Connecticut will fit into the new world economy.

If Carmichael can do a makeover, why can't Connecticut?

The state's substantial $100 million stem cell investment $10 million a year starting in 2006 has pushed Connecticut to the brink of becoming a national and world player while most other states and the federal government debate the ethics behind stem cell research. The visionaries tell me the next step is to ignite an industry around all this research.

You don't often go to an event in Connecticut where everyone is so upbeat about the future. I wandered around StemCONN, listening to researchers such as Carmichael talk about "the very interesting structure" of "non-coding RNAs" and regulating "gene expression," and I felt like a liberal arts idiot. But I also caught the optimistic buzz about finding new cures for cancer and other diseases as scientists learn about how to replace defective or damaged cells.

Connecticut could become something different and desirable, as Gov. Dannel Malloy reminded the StemCONN audience this week.

"This is a moment to take advantage of," said Laura Grabel, a stem cell researcher from Wesleyan who, like Carmichael, received one of the early state grants. Before, she was one of the cynical nonbelievers. Now, she says, "The state has been transformed."

Before the investment, there was one lab at Yale. Now there are 100 labs and 200 stem cell researchers in Connecticut focusing on, as Carmichael explained to me, "how life initiates."

Ten years from now, it's possible that research discoveries made here will have led to pioneering advances in bone and cartilage repair, Grabel told me. "There is no better investment."

Milton Wallack, a dentist from Hamden and a member of the Connecticut Stem Cell Coalition and the influential Stem Cell Advisory Board, told me that the next step is to move from research into "commercialization."

"We are ahead of almost any other state," said Wallack, who embraced the cause like a missionary after a grandson was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes. "You have all the right ingredients in place... You want to build a broad biomedical industry, a life-sciences industry."

"In Connecticut, we can become the Silicon Valley of this kind of work,'' Wallack said.

A government investment has brought researchers from Yale, UConn and Wesleyan together, creating new research breakthroughs that may lead to an industry to pull us out of the old manufacturing economy.

It's early. Other states could eclipse us. Lawsuits may further derail federal funding. But halfway through the state's $100 million investment in stem cells, there's a lot to be hopeful about.

Just ask Gordon Carmichael, the scientist whose research rebirth may be the start of a new era.