Why a Foundation is Doubling Down on Stem Cell Research

Elena PavlovicH/shutterstock

Elena PavlovicH/shutterstock

Stem cells hold the potential to be the proverbial medical magic bullet. For years, researchers have been attempting to turn these cells into viable treatments for some of society’s most vexing medical conditions, including cancer, heart disease, immune disorders, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, autism, blindness and diabetes. One grantmaker that’s long been deeply committed to this work is the Starr Foundation, which recently made another big gift for stem cell research.

The $50 million grant will support the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative (Tri-SCI), a research collaboration between Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller University, and Weill Cornell Medicine. The Tri-SCI funds technology development, seminars and symposia to train the next generation of stem cell researchers. Under the Tri-SCI, “investigators work across institutional and disciplinary boundaries.” Tri-SCI was established in 2005 with an initial gift of $50 million from the Starr Foundation, and Starr gave an additional $50 million to Tri-SCI in 2012. Cumulatively, those two gifts funded research by 86 investigators among the Tri-SCI partners.

The current gift supports competitive grants for stem cell research for researchers at the three Tri-SCI institutions. Beginning in 2006, Tri-SCI issued an annual RFA seeking applications from Tri-Institutional faculty for a “broad range of stem cell research projects, including studies of human embryonic stem cells (both those registered by the federal government and those that are not) adult, fetal and cancer stem cells, as well as stem cells studied in model systems.”

The Starr Foundation was founded in 1955 by insurance entrepreneur Cornelius Vander Starr, who left his estate to the foundation after his passing in 1968. Despite being fairly low-profile, it’s a substantial grantmaker—tapping a $1.5 billion endowment (as of 2017) to distribute tens of millions of dollars a year, primarily to health and education causes. Although the Starr Foundation awards grants to organizations around the country and the world, it has a strong affinity for New York City, where it has been one of biggest contributors to leading medical institutions.

Who’s Given for Stem Cell Research?

Starr is among a handful of funders and donors that have gone in big backing stem cell initiatives. Others include the Marcus Foundation, established by Bernie Marcus, who was the co-founder of The Home Depot and has a long-established interest in stem cell research. Marcus funded the Marcus Center for Cellular Cures at Duke University School of Medicine. Former Cisco CEO John Morgridge and his wife Tashia have also given for stem cell research, underwriting the work of the Morgridge Institute in Madison, Wisconsin.

Other donors to this area include Los Angeles philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad, who gave $20 million to UCLA for a stem cell institute in 2007, and sound technology pioneer Ray Dolby, who gave over $40 million to the University of California at San Francisco for Stem cell initiatives. In 2010, then New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg quietly donated $100 million to Johns Hopkins University, largely for stem-cell research. And we have frequently reported on the investments made by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which have made stem cell research a priority. 

State governments have also put money into stem cell research. In 2004, Californians voted to pass Proposition 71, authorizing a $3 billion investment in stem cell research and therapy development in California, and created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), the state public funding corporation responsible for allocating these funds. It is likely that voters will be asked to refund this initiative in 2020 for an additional $5 billion. Across the U.S., nearly a dozen states have followed California's example in launching their own stem cell initiatives, while $1.5 billion in federal support funded stem cell research in 2017.

Philanthropy’s Role in a Controversial Area

Given substantial government funding for stem cell research, what is philanthropy’s role in this space? First, private funding is not afraid of taking on politically sensitive research. Stem cell research has been controversial due to the moral implications of destroying human embryos. While federal funding restrictions were largely rolled back under the Obama administration, the Trump administration reopened this issue for review in fall 2018. Most federal stem cell funding supports non-embryonic research, but it would be a blow to researchers in the field if the current administration withdraws support for human embryonic stem cell research. That’s not a fear that researchers backed by private funders like the Starr Foundation have to worry about.

Second, private donors are also much more willing to pay for the capital infrastructure like labs and buildings, prerequisites for any major research. Federal money is typically restricted to specific costs to conduct research that often answers a very narrow research question.

Finally, as we so often point out, philanthropy is more willing than government to back risky and experimental work, as well as to invest in young researchers.

The leaders of the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative believe in the critical importance of private support for their work. “Stem cells are a potent avenue of innovation in bioscience, and Rockefeller researchers funded by Tri-SCI have made important contributions over the last decade, including the identification of molecular events that trigger stem cells to differentiate into specific tissue types,” said Dr. Richard P. Lifton, president of The Rockefeller University. “These discoveries, which would not be possible without the support of the Starr Foundation, are leading to new therapies for a range of neurodegenerative and other disorders.”