There’s nothing like a personal experience to instill passion and a sense of purpose. Susan Solomon, the CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, is testament to that. When her son Ben was diagnosed with Type I Diabetes in 1996, Susan appreciated the extraordinary work of Ben’s pediatrician, Dr. Signe Larson, and realized that when faced with a health crisis, we have to deal with it and “make the best life we can.” Taking this conviction to heart, Susan began to research juvenile diabetes and became active on the Juvenile Diabetes Research Board.
It was through her involvement on the Board that Susan met Dr. Harold Varmus, the President of Memorial Sloan Kettering Hospital, Nobel Laureate, and a key figure in the scientific community. Varmus was especially interested in human embryonic stem cell research (hESC), which was still in its infancy, having only started in 1998. Many disease-advocacy groups were fearful of aligning themselves too closely to a cause that had not yet gained traction with the public and the government. Varmus shared his frustration with Susan, and following the lead of California, Susan and Mary Elizabeth Bunzel founded the New York Stem Cell Foundation—headquartered out of Susan’s apartment!
Today, the New York Stem Cell Foundation has an office, a vibrant research laboratory, a staff of 23, including scientists and researchers, and has raised more than $20 million toward its mission to accelerate cures for diseases through stem cell research. NYSCF’s key programs are NYSCF Research and the NYSCF Laboratory, state-of-the-art research facilities and support for the unrestricted pursuit of advanced stem cell research by leading scientists; the NYSCF Fellowship Program, which trains the next generation of stem cell scientists who will revolutionize medicine; and NYSCF Conferences and Symposia, which drive new ideas and raise the bar for translational research.
Becoming the CEO of the New York Stem Cell Foundation in 2005 was quite a change of career for Susan. She had practiced law with Debevoise and Plimpton and had a 20-year career in new media, entertainment, and investment banking. But as with so many career transitions, there is a passion to Susan’s purpose.
Aside from Ben’s disease, Susan experienced the death of several close family members within a three-year period from cancer and heart disease. Susan’s mother’s battle with cancer struck a particular chord because, “I walked the walk with my mom,” becoming frustrated that her mother’s chemotherapy treatment did not result in the hoped-for outcome.
Unfortunately, drug treatment for many diseases is often a matter of trial and error. As Susan notes, “Drugs are only as good as the material they’re tested against.” Stem cell research provides “a window to a disease in progress that allows scientists to re-create a disease in a dish and study its process.” By understanding a disease’s process, as was the case with stem cell research of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), scientists have found that nerve cells are being “murdered” by toxins from other cells. As a result of this breakthrough, scientists are developing similar modeling to understand—and hopefully treat a host of diseases.
As Susan puts it, “Organizations like the New York Stem Cell Foundation can create cutting-edge technologies that can benefit the scientific community world-wide.” Last year, for example, NYSCF supported a modeling methodology for ALS that was named the #1 scientific breakthrough by both Science and Time magazines. Building from that discovery, Harvard University is collaborating with NYSCF to make models of Type I Diabetes using that methodology.
Given the progress of human embryonic stem cell research, it’s hard to imagine that it’s only been around since l998. The scientific progress has brought about greater appreciation, understanding, and support for stem cell research. A recent poll conducted by the Charlton Research Company, shows that 74 percent of Americans support therapeutic stem cell cloning, which is the use of cloning technology to help in the search for possible cures and treatments for diseases and disabilities.
For those who remain wary or opposed to embryonic stem cell research, Susan supports their right and prerogative to refrain from stem cell therapy. Ultimately, “the proof of the pudding will be in the research results.”
The New York Stem Cell Foundation recently held its 4th Annual Conference. The speakers included world-renowned scientists and researchers in the field. This year’s dinner honored Pritzker Prize-winning architect Frank Gehry, a long-time supporter of stem cell research.
For Susan, the blessings of talent and creativity have proved to be something of a family trait. Her husband, Paul Goldberger (with Susan, above), is the Pulitzer Prize-winning architecture critic for the New Yorker, son Adam is a composer for film and television in Los Angeles, son Ben is the Chicago editor for the Huffington Post, and youngest son Alex is working at NBC as an Olympics researcher while spending weekends covering Yale football for a local New Haven station.
Susan’s personal experience with serious diseases has led her to her current role with the NYSCF. She is confident that the NYSCF and organizations like it will continue to shed light on diseases, leading to cures that can benefit not only her family, but others as well.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions:
Favorite Place to Eat: Casa Lever 390 Park Avenue 212 888-2700; Nick and Tony’s, 100 W. 67th Street 212 496-4000
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Favorite New York Moment: Serendipity of New York
What You Love About New York: The energy and the ability to launch something new. The people are fantastic.
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