The League of Extraordinary Biologists

By Tom Matlack | Boston Magazine |

The Squealing Pig, on Smith Street in Mission Hill, is an Irish pub and sometime metal bar that shows kung fu flicks. It is also, on certain nights, a place where medicine’s biggest problems are solved.

Three scientists from the Harvard Stem Cell Institute come to the Pig when they need to talk about their jobs. They are not your average scientists; they are freaks of overachievement, young and attractive and supremely ambitious. The goal of their research is nothing less than curing mankind’s last intractable diseases. That they are inching ever closer to that goal is only part of what makes them such a very big deal.

Amy Wagers, who works with the stem cells that form blood cells, learned to fly on trapeze bars while studying at Stanford. At the Pig, the petite blond 35-year-old could be mistaken for a teacher from the nearby Winsor School, and tends to talk with her hands, a demure smile breaking across her lips. Kevin Eggan, also 35, does stem cell research tied to ALS, lives in a Leather District bachelor pad, and rock-climbs in his spare time; his square jaw and chiseled build elicit stares from the women at the Pig. Konrad Hochedlinger, 33 and arguably even more handsome—high cheekbones, gray-blue eyes, and an olive complexion that belies his Austrian roots—skis the Alps when he’s home. His specialty is something called IPS cells, which might prove the biggest game-changer of them all, since they derive their healing powers not from nature, but from science.

On their own, Wagers, Eggan, and Hochedlinger have pulled off things in their labs that have never been done before, advances that have fueled the field’s headline-generating momentum. Collectively, the trio, along with their idiosyncratic bosses, have put Boston at the epicenter of a movement that proponents believe will be no less transformative than the Renaissance. But stem cell research is highly competitive, even when the scientists work for the same institution. As such, Florence in the 1500s may not be its best analogy; instead, think Houston in the early 1960s, when a generation of upstart scientists raced to be the first to the moon. Like John Glenn and company, Wagers, Eggan, and Hochedlinger all have a self-regard proportional to their talent. And like those young Mercury astronauts, the young stem cell researchers all want to put their stamp on history in a field that is advancing by the week.

The best way for them to do it—ironically, the only way—just happens to be in concert with one another, one drink at a time if necessary. Which means the biggest breakthrough may have already happened. Building this team was its own kind of miracle, requiring leaps of faith, back-channel overtures, massaging of considerable egos, and, in one case, the gumption necessary for a protégé to break with and then compete against a mentor who is more like a father to him.

The trick ever since has been keeping the trio together. The sessions at the Pig go a long way toward that. But it’s the thrill of the chase that provides the deeper bond.

  • Sarala

    Wow. Great way to write about a great topic. Couldn't stop once I started reading. Kudos to the scientists, hope the research gets translated into clinical use soon.

  • stem

    In order to grab attraction and make his article more interesting, the author included a lot of strange descriptions and quotes which I doubt are exagerrations. Also, when talking about the science, some details are thawed. I know the target audience of this article is the general public, but that doesn’t mean he can make untruthful descriptions. This is not a fictional story