November 29, 2021
BY JO WIEDERHORN
The pandemic has clearly demonstrated the critical role science and scientists play in solving health threats. Across New York, our scientists quickly redirected existing lines of research to understand SARS-CoV-2, and they partnered with the private sector to launch vaccine trials.
Against that backdrop, it’s troubling that in the spring, the state decided to eliminate its flagship biomedical research program: the New York State Stem Cell Science program. NYSTEM has been an annual investment by the state since 2007, but it was defunded, and all future stem cell research projects were canceled. Moreover, the state withheld funds from researchers who had paused their work early in the pandemic—either because labs were mandated to do so or because they had pivoted to Covid-related work.
I urge Gov. Kathy Hochul to reverse course and re-establish this critical research program.
The power of science
NYSTEM funding has supported innovative research, the discovery of potential new treatments that are in clinical trials, the launch of startup companies and training grants to develop the next generation of scientists.
Research that began with NYSTEM has resulted in approximately $170 million in funding from other governmental and philanthropic sources. The program also has advanced the state’s objective of bringing more venture-capital funding to life sciences companies, with nearly $300 million in VC money supporting businesses that NYSTEM scientists founded.
NYSTEM funding has led to discoveries of potential treatments for critical diseases, including a clinical trial currently underway with leukemia patients at NYU Langone Health and a planned clinical trial for people with advanced Parkinson’s disease to be launched by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with BlueRock Therapeutics and Weill Cornell Medicine.
Other areas of study include diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, macular degeneration, cancer and cardiovascular disorders. Without funding, though, projects with years of research behind them have no future in New York.
Researchers pivoted much of their work to focus on treating and understanding Covid-19, like those at Weill Cornell Medicine who used their NYSTEM-funded lab to test about 1,200 drugs for their efficacy in blocking Covid-19 infection.
By eliminating NYSTEM, the state loses all the momentum the program has fostered. Worse yet, researchers—especially young ones—will see the move as a sign that they cannot count on New York to maintain its commitment to support stem cell research or other areas of science, while other states invest in it. (California recently approved an additional $5.5 billion for stem cell research.) Our scientists will look elsewhere to conduct their work, taking with them their intellectual firepower, grant funding and jobs.
If New York is to be a hub for life sciences, and benefit from the medical advances and economic development the sector provides, the state must invest in research.
The power of science has never been clearer. Is New York going to abandon its commitments to its largest research program?
The state must reconsider the impacts and revive NYSTEM as soon as possible.
Jo Wiederhorn is president and CEO of the Associated Medical Schools of New York.