Crain’s New York: Stem cell research hits inflection point a year after New York halts funding

The state’s decision last year to halt funding for stem cell research has forced local scientists to hit pause on work that could spur new treatments for cardiovascular disease, sickle cell anemia and much more. As state lawmakers negotiate the budget for the upcoming fiscal year, researchers are calling for them to reinstate the program.

Lawmakers canceled the $600 million New York State Stem Cell Science program in the spring of 2021 as part of the state budget. Now the researchers who had relied for years on NYSTEM funding have exhausted the money, and their work has ground to a halt just as their promising new therapies become ready for clinical trials.

“We have the ability to, with some new funding, get these clinical trials up off the ground that have stalled,” said Jonathan Teyan, the chief operating officer of the Associated Medical Schools of New York, a Midtown-based consortium. “We are at an inflection point.”

Stem cells have the power to develop into almost any kind of cell in the body, which makes them a powerful tool for scientists to better understand how health issues emerge and how to treat them.

Weill Cornell Medicine researcher Todd Evans was part of a NYSTEM-funded collaboration with Memorial Sloan Kettering that was investigating a potential cure for sickle cell anemia using stem cells.

Evans said the funding enabled them to conduct enough basic science research to advance the new therapy into clinical trials, but cancellation of the NYSTEM program forced them to put the work on hold while they search for new funding sources.

Another of his projects was investigating the use of stem cells to repair heart damage in cardiovascular disease.

“Clinical trials are really expensive,” Evans said. “Certainly we won’t give up, but it’s really a shame.”

Since its inception in 2007, the NYSTEM program has awarded about $400 million to 372 projects spanning 37 New York institutions, according to its website. The awards generated $481 million in additional support from other funding sources and supported more than 750 jobs statewide.

Asked about the rationale for the cancelation, Freeman Klopott, a spokesman for the state Division of the Budget, told Crain’s last year that the state expected stem cell research would continue within academic and private research communities “rather than the Department of Health, which is focused on its core mission of delivering direct services and achieving positive health outcomes for all New Yorkers.”

NYSTEM-funded researchers are hunting for funding opportunities with the National Institutes of Health, pharmaceutical companies and private philanthropy, but they said the process could take months—or even years. In the meantime, they risk losing talented scientists who were working on the projects they already started.

Dr. Erika Bach, an associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Pharmacology at New York University‘s Grossman School of Medicine, said she had to fire two of her lab’s five researchers once her NYSTEM funding ran out.

Bach’s lab had been examining how stem cells behave when they are healthy and what causes them to malfunction. She said the findings could inform future innovations to combat aging or to regenerate organs using a patient’s own cells.

Bach is pursuing federal grant opportunities to continue the work, but she said the National Institutes of Health could take six to 18 months just to give her a definitive rejection. That puts researchers like herself at a disadvantage with researchers in states such as California that have robust funding programs for stem cell research.

The Associated Medical Schools of New York, which represents the state’s 17 public and private medical schools, is pushing Gov. Kathy Hochul and state lawmakers to restore state funding for stem cell research in the fiscal 2023 budget, at a cost of $44.8 million per year.

Otherwise, Weill Cornell’s Evans said, the state risks a “brain drain” to California and other states that fund this research, which will then reap the economic benefits of the new jobs and companies that result. Evans said he has already lost one of his top junior faculty members to a California university since the NYSTEM funding dried up.

“Those people have to move on, so you lose the talent and the staff to drive the program,” he said. “That’s where you lose the momentum.”