Next week, in a small victory for science over politics, as many as seventeen human embryonic stem-cell lines will arrive at the Project ALS/Jenifer Estess Laboratory for Stem Cell Research on the Columbia University Medical Center campus. There, researchers at the modest lab (the start-up and first-year budget is only $800,000) will begin experiments using stem-cell lines that are not on the National Institutes of Health’s infamous “approved” list.
In 2001, a Bush-administration mandate stipulated that federal funds would support stem-cell research on only 64 lines (just 21 of which are still usable). Though the rules don’t ban other stem-cell research outright, they put universities, which depend on NIH funding, in a quandary. “You have to have a physically separate space, using separate equipment,” says Thomas Jessell, a professor at Columbia’s Center for Neurobiology and Behavior. So the Project ALS lab is completely privately funded and therefore not bound by federal restrictions. It also can’t share any equipment with other Columbia labs, even though it’s a joint venture with the university.
A white paper signed by the presidents of all of New York’s major research universities and delivered in February to the State Legislature as it debated a proposal (which never passed) to fund stem-cell research warned of the potential brain drain and economic impact if states like California, which has made a hugely publicized promise of $3 billion for this work, are allowed to take the lead. “The threat of a brain drain is real,” says Asa Abeliovich, a Parkinson’s investigator who will be working with unapproved HESC lines at the New York Stem Cell Foundation lab. That’s another recently launched—and privately funded—lab in the same Columbia-owned building in which the Project ALS lab is located.
Abeliovich points out that Gordon Keller, director of Mount Sinai’s stem-cell effort and president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, is leaving for Canada. “The work we’re doing on finding a cure for Parkinson’s absolutely needs to use unapproved stem-cell lines to move forward, and this lab lets me do it,” says Abeliovich. Several other New York medical-research institutes are now setting up privately funded labs; officials at Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Weill Cornell medical school, and Rockefeller University say a joint lab is just a year away.
Project ALS got its start in 1998 after theater producer Jenifer Estess was diagnosed with ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. (She later died.) “In order to move the research forward in developing a cure, the scientists we were funding needed to be working with human embryonic stem cells,” says Valerie Estess, Project ALS’s director of research. But then came the Bush mandate, slowing everything down. So late last spring, Valerie and her sister Meredith started talking to Columbia about creating a lab where its scientists, as well as those from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Sloan-Kettering, could experiment with stem cells free from concerns over violating federal rules. “It’s hard to believe that the biggest advances in human embryonic stem-cell research could be occurring right here in the near future, but it’s true,” says Valerie. She asked that the lab’s exact location not be mentioned, for security reasons. “Some scientists who work with human embryonic stem cells have been threatened,” she says. But it’s worth it. “The research we’ll be doing here is potentially groundbreaking, taking the advances with embryonic stem cells we’ve made in mice and applying it to humans,” says Jessell.