Yale docs get grant to study stem cells

Yale School of Medicine will receive millions in state funding as part of a new statewide initiative to promote stem cell research in Connecticut.

Yale is one of three universities to be awarded state funds for stem cell research, along with Wesleyan University and the University of Connecticut. The three universities will share $20 million provided by a 2005 Connecticut law designating $100 million for embryonic and adult stem cell research over 10 years, despite initial delays due to ethical questions regarding the state’s method of awarding grants.

Yale President Richard Levin said he is delighted that Yale will finally receive the long-awaited research funds.

“We’ve known that this was going to happen at some point, and we have been hoping that state money would come through,” Levin said.

This marks the first time the state has ever issued research grants, Yale Medical School Dean Robert Alpern said. Governor M. Jodi Rell said this first round of funding for institutional stem cell research puts the state ahead of the curve with respect to a new and rapidly growing area of scientific study.

“With this first allotment of money, Connecticut becomes a national leader in the area of stem cell research,” Rell said in a statement.

Connecticut State Department of Public Health Commissioner Robert Galvin — who also chaired Connecticut’s Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee — said Yale and its peer research universities were selected to receive the grant primarily because they have a strong history of research and institutional support for scientific studies.

“After careful consideration and review by both an international panel of experts and by this committee, we are confident that Connecticut is investing in stem cell research projects that will yield significant findings for the long term,” he said.

The state’s Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee called for interested institutions to apply for stem cell research funding last May. They received approximately 70 grant applications before selecting proposals from Yale, Wesleyan and the University of Connecticut.

The School of Medicine announced the launch of its Yale Stem Cell Program this past August in anticipation of receiving state funding. Headed by former Duke professor Haifan Lin and Yale professor Diane Klause, YSCP consists of half a dozen medical school researchers and approximately 30 additional University researchers studying stem cells, plus administrative and technical staff. The program administrators anticipate recruiting four more faculty members in the coming years.

Alpern said the prospect of state-funded stem cell research at Yale was the primary reason that Lin — widely considered to be one of the top stem cell researchers in the nation — decided to come to Yale.

“The key thing was that UConn and Yale wanted funding to set up core facilities on the university level,” Alpern said. “The state issued funding in response to requests for grants from individual investigators at the three universities, and that’s a very powerful draw to many faculty members.”

The School of Medicine is currently in the process of establishing facilities for the program, including a human embryonic stem cell culture laboratory, a cell sorting center and a confocal microscopy laboratory, which YSCP administrators hope will be located in the Amistad building currently under construction.

Alpern said the primary reason for the delay in the grant allocation was that stem cell experts from both Yale and the University of Connecticut served on the panel that determined who would be awarded state funding. Though state ethics rules prohibit conflicts of interest in funding allocations, Alpern said it would not have been practical in this case to reform the original committee to revaluate all of the applications for the grant. Instead, the state passed a bill waiving the ethics rule in this particular instance and convened a new committee to review the original decision to award money to Yale, UConn and Wesleyan.

“It seems to have been done very equitably,” Alpern said. “On one hand no one wanted to waive the rule, but on the other it’s so hard to set up a grant mechanism, especially when the state had never done this before.”

Medical school professor Peter Takizawa said that while research funding always benefits a school, receiving a state grant in a controversial area like stem-cell research can raise the school’s profile in a positive way.

“Any sort of funding always helps to jumpstart new research and attract new people to the school,” Takizawa said. “Yale is just starting its new stem cell program and any money going toward that will certainly help get the program off and running.”

Connecticut will move into another grant cycle next year, awarding up to 10 million dollars annually to stem cell research over the next eight years.

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