State showcases local expertise at stem cell symposium

FARMINGTON–For the state’s first stem cell symposium, held in 2007 and called StemCONN, the organizers relied on imported talent. Experts came from universities in other states to discuss the emerging field, which had a relatively modest footprint in Connecticut.

Four years and close to $30 million in state research grants later, StemCONN 2011 showcased what has become a field of local expertise and, supporters hope, an emerging Connecticut industry.

“We’re to the point where we could have the big speeches by people from Connecticut,” said Marc Lalande, director of UConn’s Stem Cell Institute.

Malloy at StemCONN

Malloy makes a pitch for Connecticut

The state is midway through its plan to fund $100 million in stem cell research over 10 years, and StemCONN offered a chance to show off the fruits of the investment. Milton Wallack, a member of the state’s stem cell research advisory committee, described the five-year evolution from a time when there was just one stem cell research project underway.

“Right now, having invested $50 million in this undertaking, we have over 100 labs. We have almost 200 researchers between Yale, the University of Connecticut and Wesleyan, doing embryonic and related stem cell research,” Wallack said. “It’s an amazing, amazing thing that’s happened.”

The state program has provided a sort of buffer for researchers amid the uncertainty of federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, said Laura Grabel, a Wesleyan University professor whose work earned one of the state’s first stem cell grants. The National Institutes of Health is currently funding embryonic stem cell research, but a federal lawsuit over the funding is still pending.

State money hasn’t always been certain either. Trying to balance the budget in 2009, then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell proposed postponing the annual allotments of $10 million in research grants, although the legislature overruled her.

But to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, the emerging science could mean economic development. And the conference gave him a chance to make something of a sales pitch for Connecticut as a spot for stem cell research.

“There’s precious little that we won’t do to compete with Boston or San Diego or anywhere else in the world,” he told the StemCONN audience.

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Images of stem cells on display at UConn’s new Cell and Genome Sciences Building

Malloy’s pitch: Connecticut was willing to start funding stem cell research in 2005 and build an infrastructure to nurture it while other states and the federal government were arguing against it. Now, the state’s economic development efforts will have a “special mission” to support stem cell research and other life sciences and biotech industries. Connecticut is cheaper than Shanghai, Boston or San Diego, with a hardworking workforce and a good lifestyle, according to national rankings.

“We’re patient too,” Malloy said, noting that the state understands it will take time “to pay the kinds of dividends that might otherwise justify our economic involvement.”

“That’s why the clear message at the outset was that this is a 10-year program,” he said. “I’m telling you it’s longer.”

He closed with a final reminder: “So if another governor hasn’t come by to say hello to you, wherever you’ve met in the past, just remember that Dan Malloy came by to argue his case, the case of Connecticut, and that I fully understand and appreciate what you’re doing.”

The state grants have funded research on a wide range of diseases and conditions, including epilepsy, Angelman Syndrome and leukemia, as well as work that focuses on understanding more about the functions of stem cells.

Some of the research has led to commercial efforts, like the work of Caroline Dealy, a UConn professor studying ways to create cartilage cells that could be used to treat osteoarthritis. She’s also the director of research for Chondrogenics, Inc., a start-up company developed as a way to help turn her work into a potential therapy.

Other work is more fundamental. In 2009, UConn researchers derived two lines of human embryonic stem cells, a capability few facilities had. And last year, four embryonic stem cell lines from UConn received approval from the National Institutes of Health to be used in federally funded research. At the time, fewer than 80 cell lines had achieved the designation. The approval allows UConn to provide the cells to researchers using federal funds.

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Marc Lalande in a lab at UConn’s new Cell and Genome Sciences Building in Farmington

Lalande said the university has been working to increase the translation of state-funded research into economic development. “Cure disease and create jobs,” he said of the program’s dual focus.

Visitors to StemCONN got a chance to tour UConn’s new Cell and Genome Sciences Building, a 117,000-square-foot facility down the road for the UConn Health Center in Farmington. The building, a former lab, now houses the university’s stem cell core, the genomics core, Center for Cell Analysis and Modeling and parts of the genetics and biology departments.

It also has space for six start-up companies, who pay rent and get to use the facilities as part of a technology incubation program. The goal, Lalande said, is for them to make it and move out to a larger space in a year or two.

Other companies have sprouted up in the state to work with stem cells.

Among the companies furthest along are ones that use stem cells to develop brain, liver or cardiac cells that can be used to test drugs, said Paul Pescatello, president and CEO of CURE, which advocates for life sciences research. The jobs they create involve highly skilled lab work. He likened them to 19th century gun factory jobs, requiring skilled labor but not necessarily PhDs.

“There’s like a little stem cell industry,” Pescatello said.