Although a young and sometimes controversial field, stem cell research has been hailed for its medical importance: increasingly, medicine has turned to stem cell biology in treating a variety of human diseases—ranging from the treatment of neuromuscular and liver diseases to the generation of skin grafts for burn victims.

Weimin Zhong, Ph.D., associate professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, is getting at the root of what makes stem cells so medically valuable, studying how they balance their abilities to self-regenerate indefinitely, on one hand, and to develop into any kind of bodily cell or tissue, on the other. To better understand stem cell regulation, the team is inducing mouse nerve stem cells to deviate from their normal patterns of replication.

Zhong’s research is being supported by a new grant from the state of Connecticut, which this past June awarded $5.6 million to Yale stem cell researchers. While the federal government has not always been fully supportive of stem cell research (between 2001 and 2009, federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research was restricted to a group of four cell lines), the state—partly in reaction to the federal restrictions—has staunchly supported stem cell research for nearly a decade.

The grants are part of a 10-year $100 million commitment to stem cell research begun in 2006. Connecticut’s program aims “to foster an environment in our state where scientists can pursue innovative research–work that is already promising new therapies for debilitating diseases,” said Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

The grants will fund twelve projects at the Yale Stem Cell Center (YSCC). Among these, the YSCC received one of only two “core” grants of approximately $500,000 each, for continued support and technological development of the YSCC’s shared facilities, including its five core labs. Some of the grants are funding research into understanding fundamental stem cell biology, such as Zhong’s project. Others are funding work targeted at specific disease states.

Lawrence J. Rizzolo, Ph.D., for instance, is using stem cells to research the retinal pigment epithelium (RPE), a layer of cells in the human eye that protects the retina from stray light, nourishes it, and maintains the light-sensitive cells. His eventual goal is to use stem cells to bioengineer a 3-D culture model of the retina, which would enable scientists “to test new drugs, and could be transplanted into diseased eyes to treat age-related macular degeneration,” says Rizzolo, associate professor of surgery and of ophthalmology and visual science.

Funding from the state, federal sources, and private donors, such as the Li Ka Shing Foundation and the G. Harold and Leila Y. Mathers Charitable Foundation, “has been integral in the growth of stem cell research at Yale from our beginning almost a decade ago,” says Haifan Lin, Ph.D., professor of cell biology and genetics and YSCC director. “The state of Connecticut has been a critical partner, enabling research that will help us better understand basic biology and treat human disease.”