Connecticut staked its claim as a leader in the field of stem cell research this week, as it hosted StemConn, a conference bringing together the latest discoveries in the field.
Every two years, the Nutmeg State plays host to the stem cell world, and the 2015 conference was especially memorable. “This being our tenth year anniversary was a particularly momentous occasion,” said organizing chair Dr Caroline Dealy of UConn’s stem cell institute.
The tenth anniversary she’s talking about marks a decade since the general assembly passed legislation that provided significant funding -- eventually amounting to $100 million -- for stem cell work in Connecticut. That, in the face of serious restrictions on federal funding, gave the state a head-start on an emerging field.
Dealy said the expansion of the research in the years since is remarkable, as the projects discussed at the conference showed.
"We heard about how stem cells are being used to restore vision, from the first person to bring a stem cell therapy to clinical trial," Dealy said. "We heard about how people are using materials, silk bio-scaffolds which are containing stem cells, and using these to treat diseases like spinal injury and bone defects."
While the landmark of clinical trials was reached in Europe, Connecticut’s researchers are also making strides in commercializing their work, forming start-up companies with the aim of bringing treatments to the healthcare marketplace.
Dealy said the other big change in this formative decade is the move away from an emphasis on controversial embryonic stem cells, as new discoveries come to light.
"Within adults, within each of us people, there are actually stem cells living inside of our tissues," Dealy said. "And they’re not activated while we’re adults, but if we can understand the signals that can reactivate them, we can also try to have our own bodies achieve some of this repair of disease or signs of aging."
Susan Froshauer is the CEO of CURE, the state’s bioscience cluster. She argues that the original $100 million that legislators put up for the work has proved to be a good investment.
"We have tripled that, in terms of the amount of money that these stem cell researchers have brought into Connecticut," Froshauer told WNPR. "And that shows the level of the research, because it is very difficult today to get external funding."
A loosening of restrictions on federal funding has allowed research to take off in other places, but Connecticut retains its leadership in the field, thanks to significant programs at UConn, Wesleyan, and Yale — research that Dealy said amounts to fully five percent of that going on worldwide. "And for a very small state in a large world," she said, "that’s remarkable."