The California Stem-Cell Gold Rush

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

Dr. Asa Abeliovich in his lab at Columbia Medical Center.

Embryonic stem cells are thought to be the Zeligs of human biology—miraculously capable of renewing themselves indefinitely and taking on the traits of any other cell in the body. With the right research and experimentation, they could be used as a virtual fountain of youth to regenerate human tissue and cure any number of diseases that involve lost or damaged cells—diabetes, ALS, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, several types of cancer, and spinal-cord injuries like the late Christopher Reeve’s. True, there have been no breakthroughs yet—which of course means there may never be—but leading scientists, like Columbia’s Gerald Fischbach, are bullish. “I believe within five years there will be phase-one clinical trials using human embryonic stem cells, either in Parkinson’s disease or diabetes,” he says. “That may be going out on a limb, but it’s not 50 years, and it’s not 1 year. And with the first success, everything will change.”

Even before their first extraction and successful isolation in a petri dish in 1998, stem cells courted controversy. Embryonic stem cells are some of the first cells to spring from a fertilized egg. Science gives the embryo a different name—a blastocyst—but taking stem cells from a blastocyst requires destroying it, and the Catholic Church says the 200-cell blastocyst is a human life. Other opponents say this research could lead to the rampant harvesting of human embryos, or to human cloning, or even to Frankenstein-like genetic engineering. In response, stem-cell advocates say the blastocyst is destroyed before its implantation in the uterus—and therefore before the egg’s cells ever lay out even the most basic plan to build the human body. They also argue that the eggs used for this research come from in-vitro-fertilization clinics, chosen from thousands of frozen embryos that are awaiting eventual disposal.

The debate was moot at first, at least in this country: In 1995, the Republican-controlled Congress banned the use of federal money to create or harm human embryos for research. But in 1999, the Clinton administration came up with a creative solution: allow private funding to pay for extracting stem cells and NIH money to pay for the research that followed. That compromise didn’t last long. In an early example of a faith-based initiative, George W. Bush said during the 2000 campaign that he was against human embryonic stem-cell research, and in August 2001, NIH sent down a new policy that stopped just short of banning it altogether. About 60 existing, self-propagating stem-cell lines would still be available for federally funded research; any research that used other human embryonic stem cells was prohibited from getting NIH support. What NIH is saying, essentially, is that scientists may still tinker with the stem cells found in mouse embryos or fiddle with the stem cells found in adults. But the ones found in human embryos—the ones that might replace any cell in the body—are off-limits. This is the policy that exists today and will continue, presumably, for at least the next four years.

Scientists in general despise the restriction, calling it grounded not in science or bioethics but pure politics. Worse, they say, those 60 NIH-approved cell lines the president mentioned turn out to be little more than a dozen. And most of those cell lines aren’t suitable for the best research: They’re either difficult to maintain or have been tainted by other cells.

Proposition 71 harnessed some of the outrage felt not just by researchers but by advocates of the sick. Hollywood couples Lucy Fisher and Doug Wick and Janet and Jerry Zucker each have a daughter with type-1 juvenile diabetes, which destroys the cells that regulate blood sugar; embryonic stem-cell research is thought of as one path to a cure. They formed a group called CuresNow that has been pressing for pro-stem-cell legislation. In 2002, the California State Legislature passed a law encouraging therapeutic cloning—a hot-button issue for the opponents of stem-cell research—which is a way to create a more genetically diverse selection of embryonic stem cells by replacing the nucleus of an egg with the nucleus of another cell. Even though there was no money behind the law, the state became known as research-friendly. And when a new bill to fund the research failed the following year, stem-cell advocates took their case to the people with Prop 71.

It’s a strange wrinkle of the California constitution that even allows for sweeping ballot questions. It’s not unprecedented for California voters to sign off on tremendous policy changes on Election Day; Proposition 13 in 1978 cut California’s property taxes by 30 percent, setting the stage for the Reagan federal tax cuts a few years later. The champion of the Prop 71 effort was Robert Klein, a multimillionaire real-estate developer and father of a child with diabetes, who donated $3 million to the effort and enlisted help from, among others, Bill Gates, to raise $25 million for campaign ads and lobbying. Strategically, the beauty of Prop 71—aside from the blue-state appeal of acing out the White House—was that it promised to make the state money. The idea is for long-term bonds to be repaid with the fruits of new research: royalties and licensing fees, plus tax revenues, new jobs, and new companies. To dispense the grants, Klein shrewdly envisioned the local NIH model, turning anyone who might benefit from the research—patients, families of patients, hospitals, researchers, medical schools—into stakeholders in a powerful and wealthy new agency. The pitch worked. Even the president’s good friend, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, came out in favor of the measure. California human embryonic stem-cell research is seen now as an economic-development tool that could help cure not just diseases but California’s financial woes.

The tactical lesson hasn’t been lost on other states that are hustling to follow California’s lead. Illinois plans to fund $1 billion in research with a tax on cosmetic surgery; call it the Bo-tax. Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Florida are formulating their own plans. New York’s immediate neighbors have been particularly busy. Connecticut governor Jodi Rell wants her state to spend up to $20 million of its budget surplus on stem-cell research. A year ago, New Jersey governor Jim McGreevey had already funded $9.5 million of a new $50 million public-private stem-cell institute; new acting governor Richard Codey is talking about joining forces with Pennsylvania and Delaware to fund regional research. What about New York? With no ability to float a California-style ballot proposition, the state’s stem-cell future is now entirely up to Albany’s notoriously gridlocked State Legislature. In 2003, with Christopher Reeve at his side, Sheldon Silver, speaker of the Democratic-controlled State Assembly, announced a bill called the Reproductive Cloning Prohibition and Research Protection Act. The Assembly has passed it for two years running—but the bill, like the one California passed in 2002, doesn’t back up that support with funding. Not that it matters, really. Joe Bruno, the majority leader of the Republican-controlled State Senate, has left the bill in limbo—without his crucial support, it’s failed twice even to make it to conference—despite Bruno’s close friendship with Nancy Reagan.

And so far, George Pataki has treated the issue as if it were a contagious disease. For a governor eager to ingratiate himself with the president, it might as well be.

Until recent years, the great medical institutions of New York have tended to compete more than cooperate. The major medical centers—Columbia, NYU, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Mount Sinai, Weill-Cornell, Rockefeller, and Yeshiva’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine—are accustomed to acting independently, often fighting for the same scientists and federal grant money. At one time in the late nineties, for example, there were no fewer than five different proposals for major bioscience parks on the drawing board in New York, each one sponsored by a different institution and requiring substantial public support. “When the state is asked to support one of them on something like a biotech incubator, they’re concerned they’ll piss off everybody else,” says Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future, a nonpartisan local economic-policy think tank. “In other cities, there are just one or two standouts, like Stanford and Berkeley or Harvard and MIT. The real problem is, no other city has this many top-tier research institutions.”

Some New York institutions did band together to lobby Washington and Albany: A group called New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research—made up of hospitals, medical schools, the New York Biotechnology Association, and disease-focused advocacy groups like Project ALS—started trying to educate Albany legislators about the ethics of therapeutic cloning and the potential of stem-cell research. One of that group’s members, the Academic Medicine Development Company, or AMDeC (a lobbying organization for 35 New York medical schools, academic health centers, and research institutions) had formed a few years earlier to fight for a greater share of NIH grant money.

The city has also become a popular destination for exiled NIH figures from the Clinton administration. In 2000, Memorial Sloan-Kettering hired former NIH chief Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate for his study of the genetic basis of cancer who started pushing hard for the city to support private biotechnology. A year later, Gerald Fischbach, who had worked under Varmus at NIH, joined Columbia and embarked on his own campaign to fight the NIH restrictions on stem-cell research. He also founded a stem-cell consortium and raised $25 million for stem-cell research.

The medical institutions also found a friend in City Hall. Though admittedly more consumed with other efforts—like pushing hard for the Olympics and a new football stadium—Mike Bloomberg and his economic development staff are friendly to biotechnology. In November, the mayor unveiled plans to develop a long-discussed project called the East River Science Park, near NYU Medical Center, which will provide bioscience entrepreneurs with 870,000 square feet of space for start-up biotech businesses.

Then California lapped them all. Even before Election Day, the heads of New York’s medical institutions started wondering how big the brain drain would be if Prop 71 passed. As if to confirm their worst fears, Irv Weissman, director of Stanford University School of Medicine’s stem-cell institute, boasted in the press about how if the measure won, his first call would be to Harvard and his second to his friend Harold Varmus.

How would the city suffer if stem-cell research doesn’t happen here? It starts with jobs, and it ends, rather ominously, with the possible decline in the quality of our health care.

Let’s start with jobs. By all rights, we should have built a major commercial biotechnology industry here long ago. We have more than enough major medical centers, half the country’s pharmaceutical companies nearby, and an abundance of Wall Street venture capitalists ready to invest in the next Genentech. But practically every time a local doctor dreams up a new commercial drug, the company he partners with has left town. Over the years, the city has lost out on such success stories as Amgen, Pharmacopeia, and Memory Pharmaceuticals, a jewel of a company sprung from the lab of Columbia Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, only to be lured by economic incentives to New Jersey.

The price of not doing business surely runs in the billions, and with Prop 71, we stand to lose more. “If you look at Massachusetts or California, or even at emerging centers like Maryland and Virginia, the multiplier effect of these high-tech scientific jobs is tremendous,” says Kathy Wylde of the Partnership for New York City, the local chamber of commerce. “Silicon Alley is a blip on the screen compared to the potential economic benefits of the life-sciences sector.”

Part of the New York biotech problem is simply real estate. Biotech businesses need a certain kind of space to build and run laboratories, and the city simply hasn’t had it. Add to that the city’s high rents and there’s been little reason to start a biotech outfit here. Ron Cohen, a researcher and an entrepreneur, has actually started two different biotech companies in New York and moved both out of town. His current company, Acorda Therapeutics, which develops drugs to treat nervous-system disorders, opened an office in 1995 in what once had been a walk-in closet. After its first $20 million round of venture-capital financing in 1998, Cohen moved to Westchester. “There was only one viable alternative for the space we needed at the time,” he says—Columbia’s new business-incubator space, the Audubon Business and Technology Center in Washington Heights. “There was nothing else. I was thinking ahead, and if we needed 20,000 feet of space, it wasn’t going to be here.”

The city’s announced bioscience center might help alleviate the space problem, but the rents are still high, and local and state governments haven’t offered subsidies or other incentives the way biotech growth areas like Maryland have. In early 2001, Wylde’s group issued a study suggesting that if the city could invest $100 million in biotech, the private sector would come through with an additional $400 million, making New York the third-biggest biotech market in the nation. The city didn’t oblige. “I’m not sure New York’s business and political leaders feel hungry enough to pursue growth strategies,” says Jonathan Bowles.

New York also has a stigma to live down. The city just isn’t perceived as a biotech town. “Our problem is largely a marketing problem,” says Andrew Alper, head of the city’s Economic Development Corporation. He often tells the story of a newly elected Mike Bloomberg cold-calling Dan Vasella, the CEO of Novartis, after the company announced it was consolidating in Cambridge. They visited Vasella’s pied-à-terre in midtown and made their pitch. Alper recalls Vasella’s saying, “You know what? It just never occurred to me. I was trained in New York, I lived in New York, what you’re saying is absolutely right. You just were not on my radar screen—you weren’t even on my short list of cities to think about for expansion.” Novartis moved to Cambridge anyway. If you’re starting a biotech business, it just makes sense to go where the others are.

New York’s medical institutions, meanwhile, have historically demonstrated an allergy to anything that might make money from their science. Universities like MIT, on the other hand, have built commercial-science parks right next door, and West Coast institutions have welcomed board members from companies like Hewlett-Packard and Sun Microsystems who were ready to help the schools do business. “In California, they understand it’s good for business to back the next Hewlett-Packard rather than just license out the technology to someone else,” says Bowles. “Until five years ago, some of the institutions here didn’t even have a technology-transfer office.”

In recent years, Columbia has set up an effective biotech office for its faculty (which may be of some help to Asa Abeliovich), but when the man behind it, executive vice-provost Michael Crow, decamped for Arizona State University in 2002, he seemed fed up with the lack of enthusiasm here. “New York is one of the scientific capitals of the world, but you wouldn’t know that,” he said at the time. “There’s no recognition that science and technology is any value at any level to New York City.”

Hospitals are only as great as their high-end research. Without the star scientists and the momentous discoveries, donations dry up and grant money goes elsewhere. Losing the stem-cell race would only speed up this process. Even if most of the city’s more established human embryonic stem-cell researchers stay, suppose the research takes off in California or elsewhere? The hospitals and medical schools here could suddenly find themselves unable to attract the next generation’s most talented medical students and young doctors and researchers, who invariably want to be where the sexiest research is happening—and where most of the jobs are.

“Without young faculty, you cut off the lifeblood of the medical school,” says Antonio Gotto, dean of Weill-Cornell Medical College. “They’re needed for teaching, for the patient work, for the research.” In time, what makes New York known around the world—the experimental-drug trials taking advantage of the city’s genetically diverse population, bringing cures here first; the last-minute, hail-Mary treatments for hopeful patients flying in from other countries—could disappear. “Look at aids as a model,” says Dr. Benjamin Chu, president of the city’s Health and Hospitals Corporation. “Many of the first protease inhibitors were actually tested here. At Bellevue, we had a federally funded aids research unit. If all of this is happening in a California lab and California hospitals, it’s less likely that our patients would be involved in early trials.”

What will the loss of cutting-edge medicine mean to the average New York patient? “If you break your leg, it probably doesn’t make a difference,” says Jo Wiederhorn, executive director of the Associated Medical Schools of New York. “You may not get A-plus physicians treating you, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get good physicians treating you. But if you are diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, it would certainly have an impact. And if you go traveling and you go someplace and you come back and you’re sick and no one can figure it out? It would impact on that.”

Then there’s the doomsday scenario: New York hospitals lose their main profit centers and become like other urban hospitals—catering mainly to the uninsured and subsisting on shoestring budgets.

Since Prop 71 was passed, New Yorkers for the Advancement of Medical Research has been planning a new advance on Albany. “We have to decide if it’s better to move forward with the policy bill or raise the temperature a bit and make it a money bill,” says one of the alliance’s leaders, Robin Elliott of the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Others feel more confident about the bill’s chances because, the thinking is, Prop 71 converted stem-cell research from a political issue dominated by the White House and Congress into a federalist issue that any prudent state now must address. Events may put more pressure on Pataki, who, like the Republican governors of Maryland, Massachusetts, and Georgia, has powerful medical institutions facing brain drains; the science and the money may prove irresistible. It doesn’t hurt that the State Senate has lost a few Republican members. “I think the current circumstances around the country are going to force everybody to look at this differently,” says Maria Mitchell, a former chairman of the board of the Health and Hospitals Corporation under Rudy Giuliani who now lobbies for AMDeC. “There have been members of the State Senate who have been receptive but were waiting for the election. Now it’s clear that this thing has been kicked back to the states.”

Others aren’t waiting for the government. They’re strategizing about finding a way to participate in the California gold rush through a back door—alliances between New York and West Coast institutions. Some have heard it may be possible to leverage grant funding—so, for instance, a Columbia researcher would collaborate with Stanford, and the Stanford part would be funded by ballot and the New York part would be funded privately. But most are searching for private dollars. Harold Varmus says Memorial Sloan-Kettering is financing the work of scientists like Lorenz Studer with donations. And Gerald Fischbach says Columbia will set aside at least 10,000 square feet of space for stem-cell research. “We’re not going to get sidelined,” Fischbach says. “I won’t let that happen. We’re gonna make a huge effort to raise private funds for embryonic stem cells.” They’ll have competition, of course: Johns Hopkins has a $60 million privately funded stem-cell institute, and Harvard is on the way to raising $100 million.

California has its Robert Klein, and a few angels have emerged here. Rockefeller University’s privately funded center for stem-cell research exists because of the generosity of philanthropist Harriet Heilbrunn. Chuck Brunie, a founder of Oppenheimer Capital and chair emeritus of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute whose wife, Jean, has suffered several strokes, has pledged $3 million to the stem-cell center at Columbia where Asa Abeliovich works. And Weill-Cornell’s Ansary Center for Stem Cell Therapeutics started with a $15 million grant from Houston philanthropists Shahla and Hushang Ansary. The dean, Antonio Gotto, says the center is actively considering setting up a lab completely independent of NIH in order to use embryos sitting in Weill-Cornell’s fertility clinic. But that would take more money. “I’m sure there are individuals out there,” Gotto says. A megagift, in fact, may already be in the works. According to one accomplished New York stem-cell researcher, several donors are looking to team up to fund a private, local stem-cell initiative that would be shared by a number of medical centers. The gift could be announced as early as January.

In the long run, stem-cell advocates believe a breakthrough in research will change everything. The first time the next Christopher Reeve walks, or the first Parkinson’s sufferer stops shaking, or the first leukemia patient is given a clean bill of health, public outcry for this research, they say, will be overwhelming. The only question for New York is, will we be so far behind at that point that we can’t catch up? Researchers here would prefer not to wait to find out. “I don’t know what it’ll take,” says Gerald Fischbach. “The scientists have weighed in without effect. But I would like to see New York State, a blue state after all, stand up for its principles.”

Six Doctors New York Can’tLose
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 haveto think about.”

The California Stem-Cell Gold Rush