The League of Extraordinary Biologists
What it’s like to be young, brilliant, fawned over by multimillionaire investors, courted by universities and corporations around the world, and forever racing—sometimes as teammates, sometimes as rivals—to change medicine as we know it.
While Jaenisch’s pupils blossomed at MIT, the stem cell researchers at rival Harvard were making more-incremental gains. The school had stymied itself by spreading its efforts among its departments, medical school, and affiliated hospitals. By contrast, MIT’s team was smaller, but centralized at the Whitehead Institute. If Harvard were to have breakthroughs akin to MIT’s—and it had unparalleled resources to do so—it would need to bring together its disparate entities, harness their power and intellect for a common goal. Two of the school’s scientists set out to do precisely that.
The first was famed biologist Doug Melton. One day in 1991, he had rushed to meet his wife at Children’s Hospital. Their six-month-old son, Sam, had thrown up that morning and begun to hyperventilate. The boy lost consciousness in the ER and still doctors had no idea what was wrong. When Sam came to, a nurse took a urine sample. Soon after, the doctors told his anxious parents that Sam had juvenile diabetes.
Melton threw himself into finding a cure for the disease. A year later, that search led him to stem cells. And that in turn led him to the man who would eventually work alongside him to coordinate Harvard’s stem cell efforts: David Scadden. Scadden taught hematology at Harvard but spent most of his time as a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital’s cancer center. When Melton met him, Scadden was developing alternative methods to treat the patients he saw ravaged by the disease.
By 2003, Scadden and Melton began talking about creating an ecosystem of sorts for stem cell research at Harvard. The complexities and ever changing nature of the field demanded as much, they believed. Melton had the pedigree to build such an organization, but needed a frontman who could raise money and charm the world outside the lab. Scadden, with his easy bedside manner and innate ability to render advanced scientific concepts understandable, was that man.
Scadden and Melton went to Harvard president Larry Summers and lobbied hard for the money to bring their vision to fruition; in 2004, Summers agreed. But their work was just beginning. They had their stem cell institute. Now they needed some fresh talent.