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.
Harvard’s stem cell team was to be one of the marquee tenants in the 589,000-square-foot life sciences complex the school had slated as the first building on its decade-in-the-making Allston campus. But now five cranes hover over the giant hole where the foundation has been dug, halted by the blow to Harvard’s endowment when the market crashed. So the scientists are making do. The old Harvard labs that were to have been repurposed upon the stem cell institute’s move across the Charles are instead undergoing an accelerated $50 million renovation. At the moment, Eggan’s office looks out on cardboard boxes and a torn-up industrial space.
Meanwhile, the stem cell institute has had to aggressively raise funds to fuel its own unbowed agenda. For Eggan, Wagers, and particularly Hochedlinger, this means participating in a kind of traveling revue.
This past February, 40 handpicked guests arrived at Tashun Estate in Boca Raton, Florida, the mansion of Red Sox owner John Henry. They proceeded upstairs to a massive home cinema, where they were greeted by Henry, sporting a suit and bright yellow tie. MGH president Peter Slavin and David Scadden were similarly attired. Practically the only man in the room without a tie was Hochedlinger. Though the swarthy Austrian had shaved for the event—”which I hate,” Hochedlinger says—and left his jeans at home for once, the young scientist wore his white shirt unbuttoned, revealing his chest hair. Scadden couldn’t help remarking later that Hochedlinger looked as if he had “a touch of Springsteen” about him.
After being introduced by Scadden, Hochedlinger cued up a film he’d prepared for the evening’s presentation, about a type of aquatic salamander and its ability to regrow its organs. When the film ended, Hochedlinger asked the audience, “Why can’t we do this?” He then went on to describe how he and his colleagues were performing the same kind of magic at the cellular level.
He talked about the monumental day in 2007 when he’d created stem cells without using embryos. He also talked about how he had since improved the technique. Previously, for IPS cells to work, researchers had to rely on a retrovirus that, unfortunately, could also potentially lead to tumors in the new cells. Like a crack computer programmer, Hochedlinger had fixed the bug in the IPS code by swapping out the retrovirus for a common-cold virus. Presto—no more tumors.
Before Hochedlinger finished, he made sure to hype his employer. “By creating the diseased tissue in isolation to allow for rapid drug trials”—part of the work for which Eggan had been awarded the MacArthur—”we at the stem cell institute have been able to greatly accelerate research into the treatment of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, and ALS, among many others,” he told the crowd.
When Hochedlinger was done, an impressed-looking Henry stood to thank him, then turned to address his guests. “It’s up to all of us here to make sure the things Konrad has discussed are possible,” he said. No checks would be signed that night, but the message was clear: Henry would continue to give generously to MGH, and he expected everyone in the room to do the same. Off to his side was Hochedlinger, rakish in his unbuttoned shirt, the rock-star comparison now even more apt.