The Li Ka Shing Foundation (LKSF), Asia’s largest philanthropic organization, has made a $1.5 million donation to the Yale Stem Cell Center (YSCC). The donation will fund improvements in two of the YSCC’s four core laboratories that will benefit the work of more than 60 faculty members and numerous trainees across the campus.

In announcing the contribution, Yale University President Richard C. Levin said, “We are grateful for the Li Ka Shing Foundation’s generosity, which benefits today’s medical research in order to develop tomorrow’s cures. This significant donation will allow the Yale Stem Cell Center to continue to make available to its members the most current technologies used in stem cell research.”

YSCC Director Haifan Lin, Ph.D., professor of cell biology, first met LKSF Director Solina Chau during a trip to Hong Kong last year, but Chau says it was more than the proposal on behalf of the YSCC Lin sent later that won LKSF’s support.

“We have all been great admirers of the work of Yale for 100 years in China,” says Chau, who visited the School of Medicine in 2010. “The team at Yale seems to be very open, and wants to support and leverage each other’s work to accelerate science. At the Stem Cell Center, I felt that Haifan has developed a unique sense of community and bonding between the different teams.”

In the YSCC’s human embryonic stem cell (hESC) facility, the donation will support the introduction of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) technology, which will bring scientists closer to tailoring patient-specific cells for the treatment of disease.

Discovered in 2006, iPSCs are typically derived from ordinary adult cells such as skin cells—not embryonic cells—but, like hESCs, they can self-regenerate indefinitely and can develop into any kind of bodily cell or tissue. Because iPSCs are genetically matched to the donor, they may not induce a rejection response by the immune system, an important characteristic in developing personalized treatments for individual patients.

The new iPSC initiative at the YSCC will be supervised by In-Hyun Park, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, one of the world’s first scientists to develop iPSC technology. Park’s work has focused on the basic biology of stem cells and on the use of stem cells to treat neuromuscular and liver diseases.

The contribution will also significantly enhance the DNA sequencing capabilities of the YSCC’s genomics core. Genomics has become central to biology in recent years, and the field of stem cell research is no exception.

“Stem cell study is becoming increasingly a study at the genetic level and epigenetic level,” Lin says. “Now you need to use deep sequencing to look at the entire genome, instead of just one of your favorite genes.”

The LKSF donation has funded the replacement of the core’s Illumina sequencer with a newer model, as well as the hiring of a new research associate and the enhancement of analytical software—improvements that Lin says will increase the core’s sequencing output threefold.

These changes will benefit not only Yale faculty conducting stem cell research, but also graduate students and postdoctoral fellows, and visiting scientists from elsewhere in Connecticut who make use of the core’s DNA sequencing abilities.

One such project is research by Jun Lu, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, on the role of non-coding RNAs in development and disease, which relies on the deep genome sequencing that the new Illumina sequencer will enable. The availability of deep sequencing will also allow Andrew Xiao, Ph.D., assistant professor of genetics, and colleagues to examine the entire genome in his research on chromatin, a DNA–protein complex that controls the genome’s integrity. A third example is Lin’s own work in understanding the role that bits of genetic material called small RNAs play in stem cell biology.

Lin studies how piRNAs, a class of small RNAs discovered in his lab, guide epigenetic factors to specific points within the genome. “We’ve now found over 60,000 of these RNAs,” Lin says. “To study these RNAs, the only effective way is to use this deep sequencing.”

An additional benefit of the donation, Lin says, derives from the LKSF’s status as a private foundation. The use of federal funding, such as grants awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is restricted to certain lines of stem cells approved by the U.S. government; these grants cannot be used to fund work on other cell lines. However, “very often these non-NIH-approved cell lines are much more important and better than the few government-approved lines,” Lin says. “This donation really gives us a huge advantage.”

Dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine Robert J. Alpern, M.D., says, “We’re delighted that the Li Ka Shing Foundation has chosen to support Yale’s Stem Cell Center. One of the key features of the center is its ability to offer core services that enhance stem cell research across the university. This donation will allow these cores to provide the most up-to-date equipment and services.”

The Hong Kong–based LKSF was founded in 1980 by global entrepreneur and philanthropist Li Ka-shing. The LKSF supports projects that propel social progress and create a cycle of charity in the world by expanding access to quality education and health care, encouraging cultural diversity and exploration, and stimulating community involvement and sustainable development. To date, the foundation has given approximately $1.6 billion in charitable donations.

Through ventures in a variety of industries, including container terminals, telecommunications, retail, real estate, hotels, infrastructure, and energy, Li Ka-shing has built a $26 billion fortune that makes him the 11th wealthiest person in the world, according to Forbes magazine. In 2006, Li pledged to donate one third of his fortune, or about $10 billion, to philanthropic projects. Li, who has two sons, is known to refer to the LKSF as his “third son.”

“This is a wonderful contribution from LKSF, and reflects the visionary insight of its founder about what’s needed to effectively promote stem cell research,” says Lin, “and it is a demonstration of the important role of philanthropists in science.”