Scientists tell lawmakers: Stem cell initiative producing partnerships, breakthroughs

Leading academic and industry researchers described breakthroughs they are making in building new lungs, treating epilepsy and repairing heart defects and the impact that stem cell research is already having on the state’s economy during a legislative forum Monday.

The legislature’s Appropriations Committee held the informational forum to get an update on the latest genomic and stem cell research and hear what kind of a return the state is getting for its investment.

The state has committed to hand out $100 million in stem cell research grants over 10 years, and it has so far distributed $70 million. The state also approved $291 million in state bonds to help The Jackson Laboratory build a genomics medicine complex at the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington.

During the hearing, scientists from the University of Connecticut, Yale University, Wesleyan University and The Jackson Laboratory thanked the state legislature for the stem-cell initiative, saying it has helped them further their research, collaborate with each other and attract funding from other sources.

UConn officials reported that the state funding has helped them build up to $167 million in grant funding for research. This has resulted in 81 inventions and 36 patents. The university also serves as an incubator for start-up companies.

More recently, UConn formed a collaborative partnership with Jackson Laboratories and is in the process of hiring joint faculty.

“This will put Connecticut on the map in the area of human genomics,” said Mary Holz-Clause, vice president for economic development at the University of Connecticut.

Yale, meanwhile, reported that it has spun off 40 biotech companies, many from the Yale science department, and has created lab space for these companies. The state’s stem cell funding has helped the university attract pre-eminent scientists, said Bruce Alexander, Yale vice president for New Haven and state affairs and campus development.

Yale’s stem cell department has grown from two researchers in 2006 to 72 researchers today. In addition, it has created 200 high-tech jobs in Connecticut and generated 132 patents. The state’s investment of  $6 million in 2010 helped Yale attract $36 million in grants from the National Institutes of Health and $2.6 million from private sources.

“That’s a 643 percent return on Connecticut’s investment,” said Lin Haifan, director of the Yale Stem Cell Center.

He described various projects under way, including building new lungs using an animal’s own cells, repairing heart defects by creating a living, growing blood vessel and making breakthroughs in Parkinson’s disease.

Wesleyan scientists described their research into what causes seizures in epilepsy, which they said could one day lead to a drug to suppress seizures.

Laura Grabel, chairwoman of Science and Society and professor of biology at Wesleyan, said the stem cell community in Connecticut is very close-knit and the statewide initiative has created a collaborative effort among universities. Wesleyan has trained a lot of students to work with embryonic stem cells in the state’s workforce, she said.

State Sen. Gary LeBeau said it was heartwarming to see how the stem cell initiative has made so many advances.

Meanwhile, Jackson Laboratory President and CEO Edison Liu unveiled an architectural rendering of the four-story genomics lab that will sit on 17 acres of state land by the entrance to the University of Connecticut Health Center.

He said the laboratory is on schedule for a groundbreaking for the 189,000-square-foot structure in January and completion in 2014. The building, which will contain laboratory spaces, computational biology areas, offices and shared spaces for scientists working with colleagues form other labs, is designed to be low-impact and energy-efficient. A distinctive, elliptical wing will house a library, auditorium and conference rooms.

Technically, part of the state’s $291 million investment — $192 million — is a loan. But Jackson Labs can avoid repaying it if creates at least 300 new jobs within the next decade, and provided that 30 percent of those jobs are senior scientist positions.

The company, based in Bar Harbor, Maine, is operating in a temporary lab in Farmington and has hired 21 employees for Farmington, including three Connecticut residents.

“We’ll make good on our promises, and I think you will be very proud of your investment,” Liu said.

Liu explained that the company has constructed an immune deficient mouse that is able to “accept” all forms of cancer. The company, which breeds mice for scientific research done all over the world, can use the mouse to grow a patient’s specific kind of cancer and then conduct virtual clinical trials of drugs to see which one will be most effective in treating the cancer. This makes the treatment more effective and helps chart a path for successive treatments.

Legislators on the committee asked about access to this type of health care and the related costs.

“This can pinpoint individuals that could benefit from the drug. I would argue that this kind of personalized medicine is precisely what we need to reduce costs,” Liu said.

State Rep. Toni E. Walker, co-chairwoman of the appropriations committee, noted the importance of getting the word out to students, particularly those from poorer communities, about the stem cell field and the types of jobs available in science.

“If we’re going make this our industry, we’ve got to make it our industry for everybody,” she said.