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The California Stem-Cell Gold Rush

Six Doctors New York Can’t Lose
By Jada Yuan

Gordon Keller
Mount Sinai School of Medicine
Keller is working to cultivate the cell that generates blood cells, creating an alternative to bone-marrow transplants for patients with leukemia and other cancers. Such a cell “could create blood for the rest of one’s life,” he says. “What we fear here is not so much the more senior people going to California. But when we try and hire young faculty, and California says, ‘Well, in addition to NIH funds, you can apply for Proposition 71 funds,’ we have nothing to counter that offer.”

Mark Mehler
Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Mehler is trying to “program” inactive stem cells in the brain to self-repair injuries from strokes, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. “We think the future is in using cells that are already in the body,” he says. “If that’s the case, then the whole embryonic argument becomes moot.” Because he’s using NIH-approved lines, his research isn’t affected by the federal stem-cell ban. “But personally, I love California,” he says. “I wouldn’t mind being there.”

Malcolm Moore
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
Like Keller, Moore is attempting to grow blood-forming stem cells that self-renew with an eye toward treating leukemia and other blood diseases. At the same time, he’s trying to perfect the process of taking laboratory stem cells and successfully implanting them in humans. “Clearly, the momentum is going to swing to the West Coast,” he says. “I interviewed three or four very good postgrad students, and they’ve all elected to go to California.”

Ron Crystal
Weill-Cornell Medical College
A pioneer in gene therapy, Crystal is developing a way to inject genes into stem cells so that the cells grow only healthy, noncancerous tissue—for the proper organ. “The last thing you want to do is put stem cells into a heart and have them turn into a brain.” Why would anyone want to leave New York? he asks. “We have the highest concentration of biomedical talent in the country.” Still, he says, “the more resources anywhere, the faster this will go.”

Shahin Rafii
Weill-Cornell Medical College
Rafii has created a cocktail of stem cells and proteins that could potentially grow functional heart muscle. “Eventually, we could have universal cardiac donors. You could call a company and order your exact genetic match. This is not science fiction.” Rafii says he’s not interested in California primarily because he believes Weill-Cornell is on the verge of several breakthroughs. “We have so much more brainpower than California,” he says.

Lorenz Studer
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center
By exposing embryonic stem cells to certain proteins, Studer is working to produce the dopamine neurons destroyed by Parkinson’s disease. For the first time, he says, “we may have a pure, unlimited source for dopamine transplantation, which could eliminate the need for drugs.” California? “I’ve had offers,” he says. “It’s clearly something I have to think about.”