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The race for stem cell research dollars

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The Star Ledger
Sunday, August 13, 2006
BY JOSEPH J. SENECA

It is incomprehensible that in the 21st century, the government of the United States is overtly restricting the advancement of a science that holds such promise to alleviate human pain and suffering. President Bush's recent veto, the very first of his presidency, of legislation to increase federal funding for new lines of embryonic stem cell research is a major disappointment.

It is also a major inconsistency, since federal funding for such research continues to be provided for an original group of cell lines created before August 2001. What this country has just lost is the opportunity to provide substantial federal funding for research on additional embryonic stem cell lines that have greater possibilities than the original lines to yield effective therapies for a wide range of devastating human diseases and injuries.

Stem cell research will still go forward in the United States, but it will do so, for now, without the supportive environment, coordinated scientific peer review process and ethical oversight of the National Institutes of Health. A number of states, along with private sources of funding, will continue to fill the vacuum created by this oxymoron of a faith-based federal science policy. It is inevitable that, in time, the federal government will change this restriction. The tragedy is the lost opportunities and continued deep suffering of the victims and their families, absent the hope that such additional, federally supported, research would provide.

New Jersey has been a leader in all forms of stem cell research. It was the first state, under Gov. Richard J. Codey, to provide research funds through a careful and impeccable ethical and scientific review process overseen by the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology.

But pending state legislation to build and equip a stem cell institute and provide substantial research funding has languished for several years in the New Jersey Legislature in an unseemly dispute over the number of centers, their location and the allocation of funds.

A significant number of other states have committed resources to stem cell research and a competitive, though uncoordinated, race among these states is now well under way.

California has accelerated its substantial commitment, given the recent veto by President Bush. Other countries, unconstrained by the self-imposed obstacles created in the United States, continue to devote significant resources to developing stem cell therapies. Researchers in these states and countries will have access to the new cell lines and will benefit from knowledge not available to those who must, because of the availability of existing federal funding, continue to work only with the original stem cell lines.

What should be New Jersey's approach in this unnecessarily confused and cluttered situation? First, New Jersey, a state with a long legacy of scientific innovation and discovery, should pursue stem cell research aggressively and promptly. Building a first-class research facility alongside available clinical opportunities is the key priority that can wait no longer.

New Jersey's economy would benefit at a time when several of its former leading technology industries are under severe competitive pressure. New science-based industries need to be created to replace other industries inevitably diminished by global competition and to draw research, new businesses and private investment to the state.

In work done last year, my colleague and I estimated, using conservative assumptions, that New Jersey could realize significant economic benefits in the form of additional jobs and income as a result of the stem cell investment proposed at the time. In addition, as part of a worldwide effort to develop stem cell therapies, New Jersey could realize further benefits from reduced health care costs, lower rates of premature death and improvements in workforce productivity.

Second, it is important that New Jersey maintain a sustained and significant investment in stem cell research. Gov. Jon Corzine's proposed Edison Innovation Fund represents an excellent way to make strategic investments over time in new science and technology initiatives, including stem cell research. One danger posed by the lack of enhanced federal support is that the stem cell initiatives in various states may fall victim to cyclical state budget constraints and local political jockeying on how and where state resources are spent. Such effects could create damaging start-stop support and interfere with scientific peer review of the research. New Jersey must avoid such pitfalls at all costs.

Third, the nature of scientific research requires flexibility and openness. Peer review decisions must guide New Jersey's research so that it can benefit from the serendipitous nature of scientific discovery whereby new directions of science arise from unexpected and un planned outcomes of basic research. This argues for investments in basic stem cell science without attempting to select "winning" areas of investigation.
Fourth, New Jersey needs to act now, with the single-minded goal of becoming a serious, first-rate, competitive participant in stem cell research. This means that scarce state resources should be concentrated and focused on a single coordinated effort, not diffused and dispersed. With human life at issue, politics must step aside and explicitly not seek to serve local interests with marginal infusions of scarce resources that are highly unlikely to yield nationally or globally competitive research capacities.

In New Jersey, an estimated 6 million disease or injury years can be expected over the next decade and a half from those conditions most likely to benefit from stem cell therapies: Type 1 and other forms of diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, stroke, heart attack and spinal cord injury. Health impacts at this scale have enormous economic costs. Behind this imposing but impersonal number lie the individual burdens and pain of the afflicted and their families who now are, and others in the future who will be, affected daily by these conditions.

There is probably not a single New Jerseyan who has more than one degree of separation from direct experience with these diseases and injuries suffered by a spouse, a child, a family member, a colleague or a friend. New Jersey has a responsibility and an opportunity to affirm life by investing in research that can hold the key to alleviating such pervasive and deeply painful human suffering.

Joseph J. Seneca is University Professor at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. With co-author Will Irving he wrote the report "The Economic Benefits of the New Jersey Stem Cell Research Initiative, " which can be found at http://policy.rutgers.edu/news/press/stemcell. pdf

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