08 November 2010

My tour of Yale biotech facilities

I had the good fortune of touring Yale University's biotech facilities today, including the 2007-built Yale Stem Cell Center, with its director as our guide: cell biology professor Haifan Lin, PhD.

Walking through a high-tech stem cell facility with Lin was nothing like I expected. Lin was incredibly personable, and he and his staff took us through their labs and offices with a sense of enjoyment and courtesy if introducing us as friends to their home -- "come on into my lab, here's our million-dollar microscope, there's our genomic analyzer, would you like some tea?"

OK, so Lin didn't actually offer us tea, but he might as well have with his ultra-nice Chinese hospitality. On the tour, there were only three of us, all journalists, so it lended to opportunity of intimate discussion and questions.

Lin generously answered everything we wanted him to and with a genuine excitement about it. He shared that he had an appreciation for what we science writers do, saying, in fact, that he'd thought of joining the ranks so he could spread his own message -- that the science of stem cells is promising us a spectacular future free of certain diseases like neurological diseases and cancer.

The Yale Stem Cell Center is actually a conglomeration of several departments rich in expert faculty in areas of stem cell genetics, translational regulation, transcriptional regulation, stem cell assymetry, clinical transplantation, stem cell programming, cancer stem cells, and stem cell for tissue repair.

They all interact and the way the center is built -- with open labs and offices -- allows for plenty of collaboration. All their objectives are centered around a specific goal. "The key is personalized medicine through stem cells," Lin says.

For example, faculty member Dr. Eugene Redmond showed that Parkinson's Disease could be improved in mice and monkeys by injecting neural stem cells. With more trials underway, stem cell injections will likely become the future of treatment for humans.

Also, faculty members Drs. Christopher Breur and Toshihanau Shinoka have built blood vessels to treat congenital heart disease with stem cells. This is important to help the many "blue babies" born each year. In pigs, they had 100 percent success with treatment. The babies that have received the stem cells grow beautifully.

They actually "create living, growing blood vessels from scratch," which means we could eventually replace temporary treatments of today (that have autoimmune rejection problems) with tissue engineering treatments of tomorrow. In Breur and Shinoka's work, the vessels made were indistinguishable from any other vessels in the body.

Lin will soon be presenting a "big talk" at the next world stem cell meeting and he's hoping that the public will begin to become more thrilled about the possibilities that stem cells will bring to medicine.

Several other examples exist of how stem cells will help solve serious medical puzzles, but each all starts with basic research. This basic research is what Yale Stem Cell Center is all about.

Lin illustrates an example of basic research: he gave us a brief overview of DNA, mRNA, rRNA, and tRNA transcription of proteins, then reminded us that only 1 percent of DNA is involved in transcription. The rest, commonly called "junk DNA," is terra incognita. Lin's lab has been able to show that it's not junk, but produce piRNA, important in regulation of the other "big" genes. They sequenced 60,000 plus piRNA!

New technologies at Yale are allowing these developments to happen. "It is like discovering a new world of genes," Lin says, comparing the development in scope to Columbus discovering America. It will lead to new genetic mechanisms, drugs and therapies.

We toured core labs, Lin's own lab, saw high-powered microscopes, a genomic analyzer that could sequence an entire human genome in a week, and lots and lots of miscellaneous science stuff.