Politico NY: Stem cell researchers plead for funding program

By Nick Niedzwiadek

02/05/2018 06:37 PM EDT

ALBANY — Stem cell researchers touted the results of New York’s decade of investment in their work Monday and advocated for a critical funding program’s continued existence.

The New York State Stem Cell Science program, a $600 million initiative, began in 2007 under then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer. Supporters laud the program for helping New York’s research labs remain competitive nationally, creating new jobs and tax revenue and advancing potentially historic medical research.

“Without NYSTEM, New York will frankly not be taken seriously as a center of stem cell research,” said Susan Solomon, founder and chief executive officer of the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

New York has invested more than $350 million for hundreds of research projects at 39 New York institutions. Part of that money has gone toward training more than 200 new researchers, more than half of whom are now employed throughout the state, bolstering the number of people versed in the highly specialized field.

Advocates are pressuring the state to continue its commitment in part because of past funding issues. In 2015, Gov. Andrew Cuomoannounced $36 million in state money, only to delay sending out the awards for months, perplexing researchers and school administrators.

Stem cell research advocates on Monday said the program fills a needed gap between the early-stage research, which the National Institutes of Health is willing to fund, and the promising work that attracts venture capital and biotechnology firms.

“NIH doesn’t fund all kinds of research, and they’re very risk-averse,” said Ruth Lehmann, chair of cell biology at New York University School of Medicine. “NYSTEM has really helped us to fund the high-risk research … that’s really led to the type of rewards you’d want from that high-risk research.”

NYSTEM goes toward research that would struggle to get funded otherwise, they said.

“You have to de-risk it before you can attract venture capital or biotech,” Solomon said.

Stem cell research is among the most promising avenues for finding a cure for such afflictions as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, bone disease and diabetes.

Lorenz Studer, a Parkinson’s researcher at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, has received nearly $24 million in various grants through the program.

“This is a really important time to have the New York funding,” Studer, a 2015 recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant,” said in an interview.

Her funding included a $14.9 million award in 2012 for a research consortium to develop a stem cell-based therapy for Parkinson’s.

Studer was able to parlay his promising work and form a company called BlueRock Therapeutics, which secured $225 million in Series A financing from Versant Ventures and pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG.

He said the company is looking to begin human trials by the end of the year.

“We’re very close to starting,” he said.

Advocates say success stories like Studer’s are key to maintaining support for the program and keeping New York competitive with states like California and Massachusetts, which are awash in both venture capital and the intellectual capital needed to advance stem cell research.

“There’s kind of a joke that February is a wonderful recruiting month for California,” Solomon said. “It’s snowing here and it’s 80 degrees in San Diego.”

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