News and Reports
Stem Cell Researchers Count Their Chickens
June 19, 2006
By Sankar P.
AS LARGE-SCALE stem cell funding moves closer to authorization- the state Senate in May passed a $250 million bill to finance the construction of three stem cell research centers; the bill awaits Assembly approval-the likely recipients of all that money are thinking about how they plan to spend it.
“This is very exciting; it will bring physicians, key scientists and jobs to New Jersey,” says Dr. Joseph Bertino, acting director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick and associate director of that town's Cancer Institute of New Jersey.
Under the senate bill, the 5-year-old Stem Cell Institute, established jointly by the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey Robert Wood Johnson Medical School and Rutgers University, would receive $150 million to finance the construction of its own 160,000-sq. The Institute is expected to be the focal point of state research in the field. Mean while, preliminary work is going on at each of the institutions' campuses.
Bertino says his team is already in talks with pharmaceutical companies-including New Brunswick’s Johnson&Johnson and Summit-based Celgene-to explore partnership possibilities. He says it is premature to detail the scope of the talks, but expects them to consider clinical-testing aspects of stem cell research.
Kathleen Scotto, senior associate dean for research at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, says the school hopes to build on its existing "strong collaborations with pharmaceutical companies."
While the funding bill is held up in the Assembly by disagreements over exactly who should get the money and what it should be spent on, stem cell research has had the strong support of the current and previous administrations. The Senate vote came five months after the state awarded $5 million in research grants to 17 stem cell-related projects through the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. Funding recipients are working to understand variations in human embryonic stem cells and on production of specific cell types to treat brain trauma, spinal cord injuries, and Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.
Last October, then-governor Richard Codey announced the creation of the country's first public cord-blood and placental-blood hank for stem cell research. These will allow New Jerseyans to donate tissue in aid of transplantation and research.
And last month, Gov. Jon Corzine carried the New Jersey flag to China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan, pitching the state to scientists there. "I want you to think' New Jersey,"' Corzine reportedly told scientists at a meeting in Hong Kong organized by the China Spinal Cord Injury Network. The network in August will send 29 investigators to the W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience at Rutgers University in Piscataway.
In his talks with Asian scientists, officials and business leaders, Corzine stressed that New Jersey is home to some of the world's biggest pharmaceutical companies and a number of biotech firms. Just as important, he
said the state has the right “legal framework” to support all kinds of stem cell research: It stands ready to fund projects that the federal government declines to support due to ethical concerns over the use of embryonic stem cells.
Bertino says embryonic stem cell research will form a significant part of the Stem Cell Institute’s work, but its current focus is on cells derived from bone marrow. These are of two types: mesenchymal and hematopoietic, the first of which can form into bone, liver and nerve tissue under appropriate conditions.
"This is the promise of regenerative medicine," says Bertino.
Meanwhile, a global search to hire the Stem Cell Institute's permanent director continues. Landing the right scientific talent is seen as key to success, since competing centers are gearing up at such places as Harvard University, California, Illinois, the U. K., China and Japan. A top scientist has reportedly been sounded out, but an appointment will have to wait until the Assembly passes the funding bill.
Based on the current $250 million legislative arithmetic, in addition to the $150 million the Institute would receive, $50 million would be earmarked for the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark to set up an adult stem cell research facility. The remaining $50 million would be sent to Camden, where another stem cell research unit is planned by a consortium of Rutgers-Camden, UMDNJ, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research, the Cancer Institute of New Jersey and Cooper University Hospital.
But debate continues on how the $250 million should be split among the various parties and what it should go for. Several alternative proposals are making the rounds in Trenton. One key player in the process, Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union), who has sponsored the bill in the lower House, wants to give the Stem Cell Institute no more than $100 million, and to spend $50 million to support private research facilities and expand existing ones. He has complained that the Senate plan would spend too much on buildings and not enough on research.
Backers of the Stem Cell Institute are optimistic and believe they have enough support in the Assembly to get the full $150 million-but they worry about delays. "New Jersey was the first of two states to pass bills to support stem cell research [the other is California], and now other states are coming along," says Scotto.
Last April, for example, Illinois awarded $10 million in stem cell research grants to 10 projects. "We're losing momentum because a lot of these issues are held up in the Legislature,” Scotto says.
“New Jersey is still ahead of the curve at this point,” maintains Sherrie Priesche, executive director of the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology. She points to the December grants for stem cell research as a key milestone. “Other states still have tremendous difficulties spending their money; California’s program is stuck up in courts- not a dollar has been released.”