New Cancer Center Director Contemplates ‘Nature’s Art’


Sharon Tregaskis

| Photos by Jörg Meyer

Hematologist/oncologist Stephen Emerson, MD, PhD, became director of the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center in April 2012. Formerly founding director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine and more recently president of Haverford College (his undergraduate alma mater), the physician-scientist also is the Clyde Wu Professor of Immunology and Medicine and chief of oncology services at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

The new recruit was in his second year of an MD/PhD at Yale when he felt the first spark of what would become a lifelong passion: a quest to understand and combat bone marrow disorders. Nearly four decades later, he remains committed to sparking such passion among future physician-scientists, including the Columbia undergraduate and medical students he plans to host in his own laboratory. “One of the big reasons the pipeline of physician-scientists has shrunk in the U.S. is that we don’t attract our most talented young people into the field and show them how exciting, attractive, fun, and important it is,” says Dr. Emerson, who holds myriad patents for research devices and serves as a consulting editor for the Journal of Clinical Investigation. “If you don’t get students to the point where they can imagine those careers, they’ll never enter them in the first place.”

Columbia Medicine sat down with Dr. Emerson to learn more about the moment he fell in love with stem cells, his vision for the center he now leads, and what he describes as a tectonic shift under way in the world of cancer research. 

What is your vision for the Herbert Irving Comprehensive Cancer Center?

The HICCC will expand on the current outstanding work to become the nexus of cancer prevention, treatment, and life-saving research, serving local, regional, and national constituencies. We will serve as the hub for cancer awareness, prevention, screening, and treatment for citizens in a large cachement area spanning western Manhattan, Westchester, and northern New Jersey. In parallel, our scientists will make basic discoveries in cancer biology that we will directly translate into improved treatments for our local patients, and patients throughout the nation and beyond. To achieve these goals requires work on many levels from hiring the best physicians to taking advantage of genetics and protein chemistry by using DNA, RNA, and protein sequencing to make personalized medicine a reality.

What’s your first impression of Columbia?

Everyone here loves Columbia, loves working here, loves working together. Literally to a person they are incredibly motivated to make their careers matter, so that their efforts meaningfully increase the impact of our work to advance science and clinical care, sooner rather than later. 

Tell us about work in your own lab.

We’re interested in what makes bone marrow blood stem cells grow into mature, functional blood cells. We’re investigating how they respond to signals when you get sick that make them stop growing and how to fix that. And we’re very interested in the response of bone marrow stem cells to immune suppression.

How did bone marrow stem cells capture your imagination? 

Cells are beautiful. You can distinguish one from another by the way they look, stained pink and blue and purple. You’re looking at nature’s art, watching stem cells develop into mature cells. It’s like Picasso, or maybe a pointillist’s work. It was very compelling, the idea that you could study the cells and that what you could learn about the process would matter for patients. 

As a college president, you wrote about the cultural differences among generations. What are the implications for the scientific enterprise?

Young adults are used to having a lot of information at their fingertips. That’s a real asset. Getting information—learning something new or being exposed to it—has a much lower barrier than it did in my day. On the other hand, that information at first glance is superficial. One needs to dive in, own the information, and know how to take it farther. That’s where a deep research experience is so important. Until you go from ‘zero to hero’ and know most everything about a specific area of research, you’ll never be able to advance the field or move forward. 

How has cancer research changed during your time in the field? 

What might be a paradigm shift in the Kuhnian sense—and I think we’re still getting our heads around this—comes from the stem cell field: Normal stem cells live forever and don’t die off. It’s a very rare cell in the tumor that has the ability to make more of itself and won’t die. Treating most of the cells in a tumor may not matter, since they are going to die anyway, without treatment. We don’t have to understand the biology of every cell; we have to understand the biology of the one cell in a thousand that gives rise to new cells. We don’t have to kill every cancer cell, just the minor fraction of a cancer, the cancer stem cell that matters. Imagine not treating patients with toxic blasts of chemotherapy, but just picking out the stem cells that matter most with a magic bullet. It’s a Copernican revolution.