Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative Pursues Cutting-Edge Stem Cell Research and Therapies

Newswise — NEW YORK (April 23, 2012) -- The Starr Foundation is continuing its historic commitment to stem cell research with a $50 million gift in support of the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative (Tri-SCI), which was established through a generous grant from the Foundation in 2005. The new gift, awarded to the original Tri-SCI members -- Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, The Rockefeller University and Weill Cornell Medical College, all in New York City -- will support and enhance collaborative, pioneering stem cell research at the three adjacent Manhattan campuses.

With support from The Starr Foundation, Tri-SCI laboratories are investigating the properties of embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to differentiate into any cell type in the body, and adult stem cells, which are found in various tissues and can give rise to specific cell types. These studies are opening new avenues for understanding a range of health conditions, including developmental disorders, neurodegenerative diseases and cancer. The knowledge gained through this research is also laying the groundwork for the design of regenerative therapies to replenish tissues lost to illness or injury.

Under the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative, investigators work across institutional and disciplinary boundaries to advance scientific understanding in a rapidly expanding field of biomedicine. The Tri-SCI funds technology development, seminars and symposia to foster intellectual exchange, and fellowships to train future leaders in stem cell research.

"Stem cell research has undergone a remarkable expansion and transformation in the seven years since this initiative was launched," says Maurice R. Greenberg, chairman of The Starr Foundation's Board of Directors. "There are many exciting developments on the horizon, and I am delighted that The Starr Foundation can renew its support of this important collaborative effort at such a promising time."

Based in New York City, the Foundation has long supported medical research, health care, human needs and educational programs in New York City, as well as cultural institutions and public policy projects relating to international relations. Of the nearly three billion dollars in grants made by the Foundation since 1955, more than half has gone to New York-based institutions.

"The goals of the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative are truly ambitious, and only a collaborative venture of this magnitude could provide the resources and expertise needed to achieve them," said Craig Thompson, MD, President and CEO of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. "All of us at Memorial Sloan-Kettering are deeply grateful to The Starr Foundation for its incredible vision and generosity in supporting this vital area of research."

"We deeply appreciate The Starr Foundation's generosity and commitment to excellence in biomedical research. The Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative will enable our scientists to continue their pursuit of bold new ideas that will better human health," says Dr. Laurie H. Glimcher, the Stephen and Suzanne Weiss Dean of Weill Cornell Medical College.

"To realize the full promise of stem cells in regenerative medicine, we need to understand the molecular mechanisms that determine a stem cell's potential to develop into many types of functional cells in the body," says Dr. Marc Tessier-Lavigne, president of The Rockefeller University. "As the climate for federal funding of stem cell research remains uncertain, we are grateful to The Starr Foundation for its continued commitment to supporting both existing and exciting new collaborative efforts by stem cell researchers at our three institutions."

Research Highlights from the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative

Over the past seven years, the Tri-Institutional Stem Cell Initiative has made it possible for nearly 60 principal investigators and collaborators to conduct innovative studies aimed at some of the world's most daunting health challenges, including Parkinson's disease, Lou Gehrig's disease, seizure disorders, peripheral nerve damage, skin disorders, diabetes, blood clotting disorders, stroke, vascular disease and wound healing. Techniques and tools developed within Tri-SCI, including newly derived embryonic stem cell lines and new uses of induced pluripotent stem cells, are fueling the progress of stem cell biology and accelerating the development of clinical applications. A few examples follow:

At Weill Cornell Medical College, Dr. Shahin Rafii, director of the Ansary Stem Cell Institute, discovered through genetic methods a way to convert mature amniotic cells (collected during amniocentesis) into stable, viable and functional endothelial cells. These cells form the interior lining of all blood vessels, and could eventually be used to rescue patients whose circulatory systems are damaged, or to aid in organ regeneration.

The Stem Cell Derivation Unit at The Rockefeller University, under the leadership of Dr. Ali Brivanlou, has generated several human embryonic stem cell lines. Three of these cell lines were accepted into the NIH registry in 2009 and 2010 for use by scientists conducting federally funded research. Dr. Brivanlou and his colleagues are developing technologies to probe the underlying causes of such conditions as Parkinson's disease, diabetes and heart disease.

At Memorial Sloan-Kettering's Brain Tumor Center, neurosurgeon and researcher Dr. Viviane Tabar is studying the potential use of neural and pluripotent stem cells to repair brain tissue following injury or disease. In a recent study, Dr. Tabar showed for the first time that brain tumors called glioblastomas could generate their own blood vessels from tumor stem cells. She and her colleagues analyzed nearly 100 human tissue samples from Memorial Sloan-Kettering's tumor bank and found that the blood vessels carry the same common genetic mutations as the tumors themselves. The findings may help explain why glioblastomas are so resistant to treatment.

Starr Foundation Support for the Three Institutions

The Starr Foundation was established in 1955 by Cornelius Vander Starr, the founder of C.V. Starr & Co., Starr International Co., and other companies some of which were combined by Mr. Starr's successor, Maurice R. Greenberg to form what became American International Group (AIG). Mr. Starr's wish was that his partners would continue the companies and the Foundation under Mr. Greenberg's leadership. Mr. Greenberg has served as chairman of The Starr Foundation since 1981 and continues to lead the Starr Companies. The Foundation makes grants in education, medicine and health care, public policy, human needs, culture and the environment.

* With generous support from the Greenberg Family and The Starr Foundation, researchers from Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center have assembled one of the largest collections of human embryonic stem cells, patient-specific stem cell lines and genetically modified human stem cell lines, including those registered by the federal government and others that are not. This has allowed MSKCC investigators to be among the first to use patient-specific stem cells for studying human disease in the Petri dish and for use in drug discovery. The Starr Foundation has also generously helped to fund the construction of 21 new surgical suites at MSKCC, which opened in 2005.

* The Greenberg Family and The Starr Foundation have supported the missions of Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center for more than 25 years. In 1997, the Hospital opened the Maurice R. and Corinne P. Greenberg Pavilion, a 776-bed inpatient facility, named in recognition of the Greenbergs' longstanding leadership as well as their support of the Pavilion's construction. Other notable gifts include generous contributions for building the Weill Greenberg Center and the Belfer Research Building at Weill Cornell. Additionally, the Greenbergs and The Starr Foundation have made significant contributions to Weill Cornell and NewYork-Presbyterian for its Division of Cardiology; genetic medicine program; neurological surgery programs; molecular neuropharmacology laboratory; C.V. Starr Biomedical Information Center; C.V. Starr Pavilion, an outpatient facility; Division of Geriatrics; and other programs.

* Since 1992, the Greenberg Family and The Starr Foundation have provided generous support for basic and clinical research programs at The Rockefeller University. This support includes grants creating and sustaining the Starr Center for Human Genetics; major funding for The Rockefeller University Hospital; and grants to establish and support the Center for the Study of Hepatitis C, a collaborative research and clinical effort of Rockefeller, Weill Cornell, and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, co-directed by Greenberg Professor Charles Rice. The Starr Foundation has also provided generous support for establishing the Collaborative Research Center at the University.

The Rockefeller UniversityFounded by John D. Rockefeller in 1901, The Rockefeller University was this nation's first biomedical research institution. Hallmarks of the university include a research environment that provides scientists with the support they need to do imaginative science and a truly international graduate program that is unmatched for the freedom and resources it provides students to develop their capacities for innovative research. The Rockefeller University Hospital, founded in 1910 as the first center for clinical research in the United States, remains a place where researchers combine laboratory investigations with bedside observations to provide a scientific basis for disease detection, prevention and treatment. Since the institution's founding, Rockefeller University has been the site of many important scientific breakthroughs. Rockefeller scientists, for example, established that DNA is the chemical basis of heredity, identified the weight-regulating hormone leptin, discovered blood groups, showed that viruses can cause cancer, founded the modern field of cell biology, worked out the structure of antibodies, devised the AIDS "cocktail" drug therapy, and developed methadone maintenance for people addicted to heroin. Throughout Rockefeller's history, 24 scientists associated with the university have received the Nobel Prize in physiology/medicine and chemistry, and 21 scientists associated with the university have been honored with the Albert Lasker Medical Research Award. Five Rockefeller University scientists have been named MacArthur Foundation Fellows, and 20 have garnered the National Medal of Science. Currently, the university's award-winning faculty includes six Nobel laureates, seven Lasker Award winners and three recipients of the National Medal of Science. Thirty-four of the faculty are elected members of the National Academy of Sciences. For more information, go to

Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer CenterMemorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) is the world's oldest and largest private institution devoted to prevention, patient care, research, and education in cancer. Its scientists and clinicians generate innovative approaches to better understand, diagnose, and treat cancer. The Center's specialists are leaders in biomedical research and in translating the latest research to advance the standard of cancer care worldwide. It is a pioneer in the research and use of hematopoietic stem cells to treat blood-related cancers -- an area that provides the only current example of an FDA-approved stem cell therapy in routine practice. MSKCC investigators were the first to propose umbilical cord blood as a source of stem cells suitable for transplanting, and the first to identify human mesenchymal stem cells in bone marrow. Highly promising work today includes studies aimed at identifying and characterizing cancer stem cells in multiple forms of the disease. Research at MSKCC has also resulted in methods to turn neural stem cells and embryonic stem cells into specialized neurons of the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nervous system. Using such strategies, MSKCC investigators are engaged in studies ranging from the use of embryonic stem cells to repair damage caused by radiation treatment for brain tumors to the development of cell-based therapeutic strategies targeting Parkinson's disease or type I diabetes. For more information, go to

Weill Cornell Medical CollegeWeill Cornell Medical College, Cornell University's medical school located in New York City, is committed to excellence in research, teaching, patient care and the advancement of the art and science of medicine, locally, nationally and globally. Physicians and scientists of Weill Cornell Medical College are engaged in cutting-edge research from bench to bedside, aimed at unlocking mysteries of the human body in health and sickness and toward developing new treatments and prevention strategies. In its commitment to global health and education, Weill Cornell has a strong presence in places such as Qatar, Tanzania, Haiti, Brazil, Austria and Turkey. Through the historic Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar, the Medical College is the first in the U.S. to offer its M.D. degree overseas. Weill Cornell is the birthplace of many medical advances -- including the development of the Pap test for cervical cancer, the synthesis of penicillin, the first successful embryo-biopsy pregnancy and birth in the U.S., the first clinical trial of gene therapy for Parkinson's disease, and most recently, the world's first successful use of deep brain stimulation to treat a minimally conscious brain-injured patient. Weill Cornell Medical College is affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, where its faculty provides comprehensive patient care at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center. The Medical College is also affiliated with the Methodist Hospital in Houston. For more information, visit