Just weeks after the discovery that South Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk forged what would have been influential stem cell research data, Yale announced it will join forces with Wesleyan University and the University of Connecticut in an attempt to push the science of stem cells forward and restore any lost credibility to the field.
The joint venture was announced at a hearing with researchers applying for grants from the state of Connecticut’s $100 million, 10-year stem cell research initiative and state officials in charge of allocating the funding.
Though scientists at Yale, Wesleyan and UConn will apply for funding separately, they have agreed to pool any resources they may be awarded from the state. Michael Snyder, chairman of Yale’s Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, said the institutions are collaborating in order to cut costs and to encourage scientific cooperation.
Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said that although the University has always been planning to apply for grant money from the state’s initiative, the three institutions met and decided to work together only recently.
“Setting up collaboration is just a way of getting more bang for the buck,” Snyder said.
Snyder said the money, if awarded to Yale’s research team, would also help the University in its quest to attract top researchers in the field, who would in turn share ideas with researchers at the other two universities.
Though the statewide allocation of $10 million per year may seem like a substantial sum, Snyder said funds dry up quickly when conducting scientific research. Because no federal assets can be used to fund research with embryonic stem cells in particular, entirely separate facilities must be set up and paid for.
“We don’t want to duplicate our efforts too much here, so one to three core facilities for the state should be fine,” said Laura Grabel, professor of natural sciences at Wesleyan University and the only researcher from the school applying for a grant.
The ban on federal funds stems from President George W. Bush ’68’s 2001 decision to restrict funding to those embryonic stem cell lines in existence at the time, which was believed to be around 60. At present, the number of usable stem cell lines is closer to 20, Snyder said.
“Actually, the lines aren’t necessarily the most robust ones to work with,” Snyder said, citing the effect of the lines’ age and the possibility of contamination.
To replace federal funding and facilitate experimentation on viable new embryonic stem cell lines, several states — such as California, which has allotted $3 billion for research — have created their own stem cell research initiatives. In Connecticut, Snyder said, the grant money is expected to attract economy-boosting biotechnology companies that are eager to capitalize on stem cells’ promise.
Though the scientific data on the therapeutic potential of stem cells are mixed, there is a consensus among researchers that embryonic stem cells, which have the ability to differentiate into any type of cell in the human body, could potentially be used to treat a number of diseases, such as Parkinson’s, heart disease and Type 1 Diabetes. Diabetes, in particular, costs the American health care system approximately $100 million annually, and because the disease involves the loss of one particular type of cell, the hope is that embryonic stem cells could be induced to form replacements, Snyder said.
“Replacing these cells would be of tremendous value and of tremendous convenience, as people have to be constantly injecting themselves with hormones,” Snyder said.
But the ethical issues surrounding embryonic stem cell research remains highly controversial. Choose Life at Yale President Geoff Ellis ’07 said his organization is against Yale’s involvement in such research on ethical grounds.
“We oppose the creation of embryos to destroy them for research,” Ellis said.
Some research advocates have questioned whether Connecticut’s $100 million research investment is sufficient to rival California’s $3 billion in terms of attracting businesses and bringing science closer to developing new treatments. But Alpern said that relative to the state’s size and the number of schools receiving funding, Connecticut’s commitment to Yale is sizable.
Jonathan DiMaio ’09, who took the freshmen seminar “Stem Cells: Science and Politics” last semester, said he thinks the Connecticut initiative to harness the elusive power of stem cells is a step in the right direction. But he said he is wary of those who promise quick and easy results.
“I think it’s important for the public to realize that cures aren’t immediate,” DiMaio said.