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The California Stem-Cell Gold Rush

Will New York lose its best medical minds to the lure of unfettered research and the promise of biotech billions?


Photo Illustration by Mirko Ilic  

In the hyperspecialized, politically thorny, quite possibly revolutionary world of stem-cell research, Asa Abeliovich is something of a hot prospect—a double threat, like a pitcher who bats .350, or a singer who can dance. Both an M.D. and a Ph.D., he trained at Harvard and MIT as a cell biologist and neurobiologist, ideally positioning him for the next life-sciences breakthrough. After a residency and a stint at Genentech in California, he was recruited by Columbia University Medical Center, where his work with embryonic stem cells quickly got him noticed. In 2003, in a video shown at a Waldorf gala for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, Fox and emcee Conan O’Brien were seen, via the magic of a TV blue screen, pretending to drive Conan’s talk-show desk out of the G.E. Building, up the West Side Highway, and into Abeliovich’s laboratory in Washington Heights, where the young doctor was waiting for them with, if not a cure for Parkinson’s, at least a decent one-liner.

“You know, Conan,” Abeliovich says stiffly, “someday there will be a cure for Parkinson’s disease. Unfortunately, there will never be a cure for bad comedy.”

To which Conan responds by running him over.

“Aw, we need him!” Fox groans, staring back at the writhing scientist.

Abeliovich is 40, entering the vital middle years of his career. He adores Columbia, which he believes has one of the best neurology programs in the country. (Someone in Stockholm must agree, having recently handed Nobel Prizes to Columbia neurologists Eric Kandel and Richard Axel.) And he’s made a home for himself in New York, taking Saturdays to ride his bike from Morningside Heights over the George Washington Bridge. But something happened in November that not only has him thinking about leaving, but also has the scientific community here—some fifteen major research institutions, attracting a collective $1.2 billion in National Institutes of Health grant money every year—in a state of simultaneous elation and alarm.

On November 2, the day George W. Bush was reelected, the citizens of California voted in Proposition 71, the celebrated and controversial ballot measure that could make the state a powerhouse in human embryonic stem-cell research. The state is, in effect, setting up its own version of NIH, offering $3 billion over ten years in funds that the Bush administration has refused to provide. In an unmistakable rebuke of Washington, California is gambling on stem-cell research becoming the biggest, most profitable medical advancement of our age—bigger than the discovery of DNA, bigger than the sequencing of the genome. California’s scientists will be untethered in their research, while New Yorkers like Abeliovich must either rely on compromised supplies of NIH-approved stem-cell lines or pass the hat for private donations.

The pull westward for New York researchers is palpable. Abeliovich, for instance, has an idea for a new commercial therapy for Parkinson’s that puts a gene into human embryonic stem cells to help produce better and healthier brain cells; he’s been approached by venture capitalists who are urging him to start a biotechnology company not here, but in California. “They feel the venture-capital money will be easier there,” he says. His colleagues are also being courted. Lorenz Studer at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center—perhaps the city’s most accomplished Parkinson’s researcher working with human embryonic stem cells—says he’s gotten feelers from Stanford and the Burnham Institute in San Diego. California also has come calling for Mount Sinai’s Gordon Keller, who is using human embryonic stem cells to work toward treating blood diseases. “I have gotten some e-mails, yes, from San Diego,” Keller says. “Just, Would you be interested in coming to look? Certainly. I’m going out there to give some seminars anyway. How can you not go?” Since Proposition 71 passed, doctors say the medical centers have been abuzz about who might stay and who might go. Some say the measure even played a role in one departure before Election Day: Arnold Kriegstein, a researcher who led Columbia’s neural stem-cell initiative for eleven years, packed up his lab in August and left for the University of California at San Francisco.

Abeliovich, for his part, says, “It’d be very hard to leave.” Yet searching for a cure for Parkinson’s is his life’s work. So I have to ask: Hasn’t it occurred to him that if he stays in New York, he’ll wake up one day when he’s 55 or 60 and find the cure will have come from California? There and not here? From someone else and not him?

“I mean, when you’re talking about that much excitement, it’s really important,” Abeliovich concedes. The California gold rush, he believes, “is gonna drive the research to some extent. The money is not just money, in a sense—though the money is huge, I just want to make that clear. But that’s not your question. Your question is, Where’s the cure gonna happen?”

He pauses, weighing his words carefully.

“I think the cure’s gonna happen where there’s a confluence between the people and the money,” he says.

You can see him draw the diagram in his head: people on one axis of the graph, money on the other.

“But to some extent,” he adds, connecting the dots, “the people follow the money.”

In the past century, New York has been the epicenter of more than its share of medical breakthroughs: chemo and radiation, blood transfusions, X-rays, aids therapies. For all that, the accomplishments of our scientists rarely command the spotlight. Maybe it’s just the city’s cacophony of braying interests: New York is the capital of so many things—finance, advertising, fashion, the media—that Big Medicine gets lost in the shuffle. But despite their lack of glamour, the hospitals, medical schools, and research centers are the largest employers in New York; the hospitals alone generate at least $1 billion a year in tax revenue. And it’s not just the size of the industry, it’s the quality. In the past six years, five Nobel Prizes have been awarded to New York scientists. Medicine here is in many respects what the city does best; sensational hospitals feel like a New York entitlement—not something that could slip away at any moment.

But at the start of a new century, with perhaps the biggest-ever medical breakthrough poised to take place, New York is in danger of being left behind. “There’s going to be an enormous sucking action to California,” predicts Gerald Fischbach, dean of Columbia’s medical school, who led the neurological-disorders division of NIH during the Clinton administration. If the city loses a place at the table in stem-cell research, and if some of our leading doctors leave town because of it, everything New York medicine is known for—the researchers who develop cutting-edge cures; the hospitals with state-of-the-art facilities to deliver experimental treatments; the seemingly endless supply of great doctors trained by top local medical schools to provide the best possible care—could wither away. And the quality of our health care could go with it.

This isn’t just about medicine—it’s also about money. Since well before Proposition 71, New York has been slow to develop the commercial side of its scientific discoveries—and now we’re reaping what we haven’t sown. Where the Bay Area has 820 biotech companies and 85,000 jobs and Boston has 280 companies and 30,000 jobs, New York has just 60 companies and 2,500 jobs. And areas like the Washington-Maryland corridor and the North Carolina Research Triangle are growing faster than we are. Lately, New York has taken encouraging steps to keep would-be entrepreneurs and the likes of Asa Abeliovich in the city. But now, just as there’s a little momentum, along comes California. If New York scientists are locked out of developing profitable new drug therapies that use stem cells, the coming multi-billion-dollar stem-cell industry could be the greatest business New York never built.

Meet the six doctors New York can’t lose

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