Over the past few years, stem cell research has become one of the most highly contested areas of scientific study in the country. In order to make progress in the field, university researchers working with stem cells often have to deal with a combination of religious backlash, political opposition and medical uncertainty. But for Haifan Lin, Yale’s newest scientific star, the secret to making revolutionary medical advances through stem cell research is simply to get back to the basics.
Lin assumed his role as director of the Yale School of Medicine’s new stem cell program last month, fresh from serving as founder and co-director of a similar program at Duke University. Since his days as a postdoctoral researcher, Lin said he has placed a great deal of emphasis on “taking a step back” and carefully examining the underlying mechanism behind stem cell function.
Lin said the ultimate goal of most of the research done in this field is to improve the therapeutic applications of stem cell technology.
Robert Alpern, dean of the School of Medicine, said ideas and planning for the program have been in development since 2004, when he began his tenure at Yale. The medical school decided to recruit Lin after he came out as the No. 1 candidate in an international search, Alpern said, successfully attracting him despite offers from Duke and Columbia.
“He works on basic research, the cellular and basic molecular biology of stem cells,” Alpern said. “That was exactly what we were looking for.”
The program will bring together at least 43 stem cell researchers from 18 different university departments, Lin said. Yale’s program is different from those at Harvard, Stanford, Johns Hopkins and other premier institutions, he said, because of its focus on the principles involved in stem cell function rather than on clinical and disease-driven investigation.
Lin said even during his days as a postdoctoral researcher, he was inclined to do a great deal of research with Drosophila (fruit flies) before ever venturing into mouse or human cells. Using flies helps resolve some of the ethical questions related to any sort of genetic research, he said, at least in the initial stages.
“I can knock off genes in flies but I can’t knock them off in humans or I’ll be sent to jail,” he said jokingly.
Yale scientists plan to receive their stem cell lines from three sources, Lin said: those approved by the National Institutes of Health, private lines from Harvard and the University of California, San Francisco and from Yale’s own in-vitro fertilization clinic, which will require private funding sources.
Lin said the stem cell program will have a permanent home by May 2007, when a state-of-the-art lab facility on Amistad Street will be completed. Other current projects include hiring four more professors, Lin said.
Before arriving at Yale, Lin held research and faculty positions at a number of renowned institutions. After studying at Fudan University in Shanghai and then obtaining his Ph.D. from Cornell, Lin began his postdoctoral research as a fellow of the Carnegie Institution in the Department of Embryology at Johns Hopkins University. After his time at Johns Hopkins, Lin was awarded a faculty position at Duke.
Diane Krause, associate professor of laboratory medicine and pathology, who was recently appointed associate director of the program, said bringing Lin to Yale was the right decision not only because he is a leader in the stem cell field, but also because he is an experienced and energetic leader.
“Once you meet Haifan, then you no longer need to ask why we’ve recruited him — he is a star, while also being an incredibly nice, generous, and humble person,” Krause said in an e-mail. “His intelligence and knowledge are superb, but what makes him truly unique is his infectious drive to better understand stem cells and his natural ability to bring out the best in people.”
Lin is also a good fit for science at Yale, Krause said, because the University is already a world leader in “basic science studies” in a number of fields and has been looking to enhance its basic science in the stem cell field as well. She said she is excited about the program because she views it as an opportunity to bring together the work of some of the world’s premier stem cell scientists.
“We will work together to discover what makes stem cells unique,” she said. “This will enhance our ability to use these cells in the clinical setting and will also help us to better understand what goes awry in cancer.”
Despite the perpetual national debate over whether or not stem cell research — particularly using embryonic cells — is ethical, both Lin and Alpern said controversy did not affect the development of plans for the program. Alpern said research within the program itself will be performed on both adult and embryonic cells, but so far, the only obstacle that embryonic stem cell research has faced is NIH’s refusal to fund private stem cell lines, which has required scientists to seek private funding.
Lin said Yale is very supportive of stem cell research, which he believes can lead to significant advances in medicine. The most common objection to embryonic stem cell research — that using embryonic stem cells is the equivalent of killing a human being — is often unfounded, Lin said. People who object to stem cell research for moral reasons must also object to in-vitro fertilization, he said, because approximately 70 percent of the embryos produced for in-vitro do not survive, which would make the practice unethical as well. But he said since stem cell research objectors typically do not have a problem with the in-vitro method, they should be more open to research.
“There needs to be ethical guidance,” he said. “But as a whole, stem cell research is so promising that I hope people will take a more balanced view.”
But some students, like former Choose Life at Yale President Geoffrey Ellis ’07, said they do not agree with Lin’s views. Ellis said while CLAY “enthusiastically supports adult stem cell research,” the members of the organization cannot advocate embryonic research because they believe it “involves the destruction of a human entity.”
“[Adult stem cell research is] conducted by obtaining stem cells from adult organs and tissues, whereas [human embryonic research] involves the destruction of a conceived human entity and harvesting its parts, which contain enormous potential for the progress of medicine,” he said in an e-mail. “I call the human embryo a human entity because, like a member of any non-human species, it comes into being with a unique and complete genome at the moment of fertilization.”
Although it will take some time for scientists to pinpoint and perfect the medical usage of stem cell technology, Alpern said stem cell research — both adult and embryonic — could have a medical impact similar to organ transplant surgeries.
“[Stem cell research] has great potential to one day let us treat diseases where you lose cells in the bodies,” he said. “I don’t know if it will work or how long it will take, but it seems like a good thing to do.”
Lin said he is glad to be in a progressive state like Connecticut, which will provide $100 million in funding for stem cell research over the next ten years, and also to be in New Haven, which he says is “full of life.”
“I really look forward to working at Yale,” he said. “It has the best faculty members and students, and we need bright people.”