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Associated Press

September 13, 2003

STORRS, Conn. -- His inroads in animal cloning made Xiangzhong "Jerry" Yang a leader in the field. But sometimes it can be lonely at the top.

At least it was for Yang, the University of Connecticut researcher who in 1999 became the first to produce a cloned animal from an adult farm animal. But there was no one else on campus that shared his field of regenerative biology. In need of collaborators, Yang began to look elsewhere, and UConn was about to lose one of its scientific stars.

"I'm happy here, but I'm alone. I'm just lonely in my research," Yang, told school officials at the time. "I needed an environment. I needed collaborators."

Yang offered a solution, one that would link his expertise in animal biotechnology and the potential unfolding in regenerative medicine and stem cell research.

"Build a center where we need at least five or six faculty members who work in similar areas but they all have their own independent area," he said. "They need to be physically located together."

The university responded by building a $10.6 million Advanced Technology Lab, which will be dedicated Monday. Built with state and federal funds, the state-of-the-art lab also houses the Technology Incubation Program, a wing dedicated to helping private biotech companies with startup operations.

"It's kind of a dream come true because you realize that stem cells and therapeutic cloning is a very, very hot area," Yang said.

Yang was the first in the world to produce male clones from a Japanese bull in 1988. He made more headlines in 1999 when he cloned "Amy," a Holstein heifer at UConn. His research has helped pull in more than $10 million in funding at UConn.

Yang's vision to include an A-team of researchers also was realized. Heading up a search committee, Yang and the university recruited five researchers with specialties ranging from neurobiology to genetic engineering.

Their collaboration is the basis for the lab's Center for Regenerative Biology, which could ultimately lead to the development of new cells, tissues or organs to be used in the treatment of several disorders such as multiple sclerosis, diabetes and Parkinson's disease.

"No one really believed that we could get five. Several major institutions were looking for researchers in this area," Yang said. "They're all outstanding. Many already have major reputations in their field."

Theodore Rasmussen, a molecular and cellular biologist, was doing biomedical research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology when UConn recruited him. He is currently trying to determine how and why stem cells are able to develop for different functions.

"This whole field has begun to explode in the last two or three years," Rasmussen said. "It's fun. I feel like somebody working on DNA three years after the structure was solved, so there's that sense of being in the early days of a new field."

The other researchers include Joanne Conover, a neurobiologist, David Goldhamer, a developmental biologist, X. Cindy Tian, an expert in genetic reprogramming, who is also Yang's wife, and William Fodor, a cellular biologist.

Fodor had been on the commercial end of the research before he joined the lab, working in the biotech industry for 10 years. With a doctorate in molecular genetics, Fodor has helped develop cells that restored partial function in animals with damaged spinal cords. UConn's appointment brought him back to his research roots. The business incubator in the building also attracted Fodor.

"There are certain ideas I want to pursue here in the basic research area, but there are also certain ideas if they come to fruition they could eventually develop into a new startup biotech," Fodor said. "UConn is trying to develop the infrastructure to do that."

Five biotech companies currently occupy space in the incubator and more have applied, said Ian Hart, associate dean of research and director of the incubation program. The program is still in the early stages, but its intent is to offer all the support necessary to launch successful companies.

"Our profit is for the university eventually to point to companies that are established - hopefully in Connecticut - and say we played a significant part in that company in the early days," Hart said.

Monday's dedication kicks off the two-day New England Symposium on Regenerative Biology and Medicine. James Battey, chairman of President Bush's Committee on Stem Cell Research, is scheduled to speak on Tuesday. The symposium is expected to attract experts from around the country.

Jerry Yang's not lonely any more.

"I feel so much better," Yang said. "It's not only influencing me. It's influencing an entire university."

"All you have to decide is what to do with the time that is given you."
Gandolf the Gray