Professor Haifan Lin, founder and co-director of the Duke University Stem Cell Research Program, assumed the directorship of the Yale Stem Cell Program today, leading a program that will focus on basic research into stem cell development and function. Lin’s appointment, announced by Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern in mid-August, is only the latest development in Yale’s continuing effort to bolster stem cell research.
The majority of Lin’s Duke lab co-workers will accompany Lin to Yale to continue their work, and four new faculty members interested in basic research also will be recruited for the program, which will be housed in a new building on Amistad Street set to open next spring, Alpern said.
The program will not be limited to conducting its own research, but will serve as a support center for about 30 other Yale faculty members across the University whose labs conduct research related in various ways to stem cells.
“The vision is to have a central area all located together that really focuses on how stem cells work, what makes them proliferate and develop along different lines,” Alpern said. “There will also be programs in different departments, specifically clinical departments to address clinical problems.”
Lin said his immediate priority will be to build Yale’s portfolio of researchers focusing on proof-of-principle research, which focuses on the basic mechanism of stem cells’ behavior.
“The short-term goal is to build the team, to recruit some of the best who have a focus on proof-of-principle research,” he said. “In order to understand stem cell behavior and to harness them medically, I think it’s important to understand what regulates them.”
Lin’s long-term goals for the program include investigating the medical applications of stem cell research. Stem cells, which can divide and create the different types of tissue found in the body, have attracted attention as a potential cure for many diseases and conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, spinal cord injury, stroke and diabetes, since they could create tissues within the body that have been damaged or are missing.
Currently, so-called adult stem cells, specifically those derived from bone marrow, are the only stem cells used clinically. These cells, unlike those derived from embryos, lack the ability to transform into cells of all types. Human embryonic stem cell research has become a controversial subject because obtaining the cells requires destroying the embryo. Yale conducts research focusing on both embryonic and adult stem cells, Alpern said.
Adult stem cells from bone marrow have a proven track record — for the past 40 years, they have been used to treat blood disorders, leukemia and lymphoma. But some scientists caution that treatments using embryonic stem cell research might not necessarily work equally well.
“Translational research [using human embryonic stem cells] is already going on, but I’m not sure how effective it will be until we know more about the cells,” Alpern said. “I’m concerned that it’s gotten out ahead of the biology. People who are ill now don’t want to wait 10 years for us to learn the biology.”
Aside from ethical concerns, economic obstacles lie in the way of human embryonic stem cell research. Federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research has been partially restricted since 1995 under the Dickey-Wicker Amendment. On Aug. 9, 2001, President George W. Bush ’68 signed an executive order forbidding federal funding from being used in any aspect of human embryonic stem cell research aside from the stem cell lines existing at the time, at one point thought to number more than 60 but now likely to be only about 20.
Effective research requires alternative sources of funding, since the existing stem cell lines that can be supported with federal grants are insufficient, Lin said.
“Most of them are not of very good quality, so they are not very good models for human embryonic stem cells,” he said.
Some states, including California, have moved to provide their own funding for human embryonic stem cell research. Connecticut has also agreed to fund stem cell research to the tune of $100 million over 10 years. This funding was delayed last spring because some members of the state advisory committee also had affiliations with Yale and the University of Connecticut, the schools that would receive most of the state funding.
Alpern said grant applications have been submitted and the first funding decisions are expected to be released soon, likely within a few months. How much money goes directly to human embryonic research depends on which applications are funded, Alpern said, but he expects half will be toward human embryonic stem cell research and half toward animal embryonic and human adult cell research.
Alpern said there is debate over exactly how restricted federal funding is. Some say facilities and equipment purchased under federal grants can be used for human embryonic stem cell research as long as researchers pay for their use. Alpern said Yale will only use facilities and equipment purchased with non-federal funds for human embryonic stem cell research.
Dr. Diane Krause, a professor of laboratory medicine, will be the associate director of the Yale Stem Cell Program.
The program will house only six faculty members in the Amistad Street building, but Jeffery Kocsis, a professor of neurology who works with a type of adult stem cells, said it will benefit far more.