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.

Doug Melton doesn’t deny that, to some degree, his team vies for the acclaim that accompanies breakthroughs. “It’s like athletics, where it brings the best out in you, challenging you to do something differently or try harder,” he says. It is very much a team at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, a yin and yang of competing interests: each member wanting his or her work to stand on its own; each member benefiting from the vigor and sometimes the direct help of the others to propel that same work forward.

And the truth is that all the young scientists would suffer if any one of them left. They’ve had their chances to do that, certainly. After Hochedlinger’s IPS cell breakthrough, he received a lucrative offer from his native Vienna’s Research Institute of Molecular Pathology. It wanted him to head home, to serve as its new director. Cambridge didn’t come anywhere close to the enticements Vienna offered, yet Hochedlinger stayed. He knew that only here, among his peers and the men who had taught him, could he do his best work.

The team’s advances—and with them the motivation to stick together
—keep coming. Indeed, nearly every day the importance of the stem cell institute is reaffirmed. In March, for instance, that affirmation came from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, based in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Last year it had announced a new award for the nation’s 50 best scientists, one that would pay each winner’s salary and benefits for six years. In addition, each would get $1.5 million of research money—a scientific-funding grand slam. Wagers, Hochedlinger, and Eggan had been among the 2,000 applicants, and Melton and Scadden figured they’d do well if one came home with the money. Instead, all three won the prize.

Quickly, the e-mail traffic turned from stem cell research to Where should we go to celebrate? The three decided that the honor was too great an occasion for the Squealing Pig, that the $1.5 million prize shouldn’t be honored by downing IPAs. They headed to Fort Point hot spot Drink instead.

“We’ll have three ‘bone crushers,'” Wagers told the waitress. When the toxic concoctions arrived—a mix of tequila, Tabasco, sugar syrup, and  lime—she raised her glass to her teammates and rivals. The toasts continued well into the night.

The next morning Hochedlinger woke up hung over. He looked at his phone and saw a text from Eggan: “Dude, the bone crusher turned out to be a head crusher.” Soon after, Eggan sent another message: “Let’s have reason to do that again soon. Get back to work!”

A freelance author living in Brookline, TOM MATLACK wrote about UMass researchers’ discovery of a microbe that could fuel a clean-energy revolution for the November 2008 issue. Read “Q to the Rescue.”

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  • 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