The economy may be down, but for 12 Yale researchers, things are looking up.

A dozen Yale researchers have received $3.9 million in grant funding for research on human embryonic stem cells, The Connecticut Department of Health announced April 1st.

[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”10705″ ]

Indeed, after weathering federal cuts to research under former President George W. Bush ’68, stem cell research may be on the rise nationally, though Yale stem cell researchers say they have faring well for some time. On March 9 President Barack Obama retracted the federal stem cell ban enacted. While the repeal will open up a significant new source of federal funding, researchers interviewed said, they added that at Yale they have been benefiting for four years from a 2005 Connecticut law designed specifically to circumvent the federal ban.

“The state of Connecticut has really helped over the past few years by being able to fund this [human embryonic stem cell] research,” Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern said.

Now, with the federal ban on funding for research on human embryonic stem cells lifted, researchers will be able to tap into funds from the National Institutes of Health too, he said.

One researcher said lifting the ban was still a mostly symbolic act. Richard Sutton, an associate professor of internal medicine who received $500,000 for a genome-wide screen to identify DNA elements specific for human embryonic stem cells, said lifting the ban would open up a large source of funding for stem cell research. The Dickey Amendment, however, a 1997 rider that prohibits federal funding for embryo research, still limits future research because it prohibits the growth of new human embryonic stem cell lines, Sutton said.

Last year, 12 different Yale stem cell researchers received $5.6 million in grant funding from the state. Asked about the 30 percent drop in the amount of funding from the state, researchers interviewed did not view it as indicative of a larger trend. Part of the reason for the decline in funding, Alpern explained, is that last year $1.8 of the $5.6 million of funding Yale received from Connecticut was in the form of a core grant, which provides support for institutional infrastructure, rather than research. Yale used the core grant to support the Yale Stem Cell Center and did not reapply for it this year, he said.

“Grant funding goes up and down,” Sutton said.

Among the 12 to receive funding this year is Yibing Qyang, an instructor in Internal Medicine and Cardiology at the Yale School of Medicine, who received $200,000 to study the derivation of heart cells from human embryonic stem cells. Qyang said the ultimate goal of his research is to develop regenerative heart tissue and use it to replace diseased heart tissue. While this is a distant goal, he said he is excited about the grant funding and building a team to work on heart regeneration.

Others are too: In fact, Qyang said he recently received an e-mail from a patient who wanted to donate his heart to his research.

“I told him we need to understand the developmental biology of the heart before we have a chance to really put the stem cell material into the heart,” he said.

The fundamental nature of the research Qyang and many of the other grant recipients are conducting is reflective of the Yale Stem Cell Center’s philosophy. The center, which was founded in 2005, studies the basic science of stem cells, focusing on their fundamental mechanisms. This approach sets the center apart from similar programs at peer institutions, many of which have a disease-oriented or application-based approach, Haifan Lin, the center’s director, said.

Jun Lu, an assistant professor of genetics, was another beneficiary of the state grant. He received $500,000 to study microRNA regulation in human embryonic stem cell fate. Many of the microRNA genes he researches had not been recognized as important until recently.

Lu said he is optimistic about the future of stem cell research, but given the current economic downturn, a more supportive political climate may not translate into significantly increased funding from the NIH.

“There are economic issues that may not translate into 100 percent full support for stem cell research,” he said.

The other Yale researchers to receive grant funding from Connecticut this year are Jeffrey Kocsis, Tian Xu, Yingqun Huang, Stephanie Massaro, Sandra Wolin, Martín I García-Castro, Qi Li, Kevan Herold and Valerie Horsley.