Over the past decade, New York state has become an international hub of stem cell research. In part, that’s thanks to one of the United States’s only state-level programs devoted exclusively to this area of science, researchers say. But now, New York’s state government has killed the program, which scientists fear will slow research progress and cause a brain drain to other states and countries.
“We are surprised and perplexed,” says Jonathan Teyan, chief operating officer at the Associated Medical Schools of New York. “Why would anyone terminate a program like this when we need science the most?”
The cancellation of the New York State Stem Cell Science program (NYSTEM) is contained in a budget for 2022, which the state Legislature approved last week and Governor Andrew Cuomo signed. The spending plan, which takes effect 1 May, halts funding for new grants, but honors existing contracts until they expire. A spokesperson for the state Division of the Budget, which has allocated the program’s funds for the Department of Health, told Science that stem cell research should “advance 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 was created in 2007 under former Governor David Paterson, who said then that it was one of his top priorities. At the time, then-President George W. Bush had limited the types of human embryonic stem cells that researchers funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health could study; the New York program was established in part to fund a broader range. Former President Barack Obama eased the federal restrictions in 2009, and former President Donald Trump left the Obama-era policy in place.
New York’s program originally committed $600 million over 11 years for research, training, and equipment related to the study of stem cells, which can differentiate into various types of more specialized cells to reveal key steps in human development or point to new potential therapies. But the program has recently encountered problems and has only given out about $400 million to date. In 2016, its board stopped meeting and reporting expenditures on its website, and since then awards have been inexplicably delayed: Researchers who applied in 2016 say they received money only in 2018 after several meetings in the governor’s office. And those who applied for last year’s grants—which were expected to support up to 70 projects with $50 million over 3 years—say they never received any official response.
NYSTEM was sized more modestly than California’s high-profile initiative, created with a $3 billion bond measure in 2004 and renewed with another $5.5 billion ballot initiative in fall 2020.
Still, “NYSTEM funded a lot of important work that would not have happened otherwise,” says stem cell researcher Sean Morrison of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. “The termination of the program is a setback for New York state and for the field of stem cell biology as whole.”
In March, 10 Nobel laureates, including Columbia University neuroscientist Eric Kandel, who did not hold grants from the program wrote to Cuomo and legislative leaders calling it a “huge success” and saying its termination would stop “all the momentum gained.” They also predicted the cancellation would incentivize young scientists to move out of state to conduct research.
NYSTEM reports that its funds have supported more than 2000 scientists and lab staff. Nurturing young talent was a hallmark of the program, says pathologist Alexander Nikitin at Cornell University’s Cornell Stem Cell Program. He says more than 50 labs at Cornell received about $10 million in combined NYSTEM funding to train graduate and undergraduate students and to support facilities shared with other institutions. “All of this will be downgraded,” he said.
Researchers expect the termination to be especially harmful to the study of human embryonic stem cells. Since 1995, Congress has banned the use of federal research funds for experiments that involve creating, genetically modifying, or destroying human embryos. NYSTEM became one of the few sources of money for work on these topics. Originally from Switzerland, developmental biologist Dieter Egli of Columbia University relocated to New York City in 2008 to seek support for embryonic stem cell research. NYSTEM has funded his team’s work on mitochondrial transfer—the creation of human embryos using genetic material from two mothers and one father to avoid disorders passed down through maternal mitochondria. (Congress has forbidden the U.S. Food and Drug Administration [FDA] from considering applications to use this method to create pregnancies.)
NYSTEM-funded studies led by Lorenz Studer at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center led to the first clinical trial using human neurons produced in large quantities from embryonic stem cells to treat Parkinson’s disease; the study was approved by FDA and set to start this year. That research also spawned the biotech company BlueRock, recently bought by Bayer for $600 million. Overall, NYSTEM has produced 10 startups, including BlueRock, Oscine Therapeutics, and Luxa Biotechnology, more than 90 patent applications, and at least four licensing agreements.
“NYSTEM helped to put New York on the map to develop cell therapy with a relatively small investment,” Studer says.
Researchers have also applied NYSTEM funding to studies of possible COVID-19 treatments. Studer and molecular biologist Todd Evans of Weill Cornell Medicine created organoids and tissues from stem cells to study the pandemic coronavirus’ effects on lung, heart, and brain cells and to test drug candidates. “We would not be in a position to do that if it wasn’t for the infrastructure that was built with NYSTEM,” Evans says.
Some scientists remain hopeful that New York state will reconsider terminating the program, but many may opt to relocate. “I would go to California in a heartbeat if it wasn’t for my family,” says regenerative medicine specialist Hina Chaudhry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, whose team used NYSTEM funding for work cultivating cell types that could serve as alternatives to the use of embryonic stem cells. The work helped her team get a subsequent $3 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to advance this research.
“When you come up with a really new idea that nobody has worked on before, it’s next to impossible to get funding from the NIH,” she says. “Losing NYSTEM is losing our opportunity to innovate in research.”