Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey

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New Stem Cell Institute holds promise for many

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Home News Tribune 03/26/06

A wrestling injury in 2003 damaged New Jersey teenager Carl Riccio's spinal cord. His mother, Tricia, is hopeful that stem-cell research will one day help her son and others like him who suffer from spinal-cord injuries to find a cure.

The Riccios and thousands of families like them are eager for the construction and grand opening of New Jersey's new stem-cell research facility in New Brunswick - the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey - which could potentially help those who suffer from spinal injuries and diseases such as Parkinson's disease and juvenile-onset diabetes.

By replacing patients' lost or damaged cells with stem cells, doctors could potentially help those who suffer from more than 70 diseases, said Harold Paz, dean of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

"There are individuals and families desperate for new discoveries and the possibility of treatments and cures," Paz said. "This (regeneration) is done in other species, and if it can be done in humans, it would be a remarkable breakthrough. I think it would be great for New Jersey to be a leader in this."

Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, Rutgers University and the state of New Jersey are collaborating on the stem-cell research facility, the first state-supported center dedicated to stem-cell research and medical treatment to be built in the United States.

Plans for the $150 million institute were unveiled in 2004 after legislation legalizing stem-cell research and prohibiting human cloning in New Jersey was signed into law. The law provides for the use of human embryonic stem cells for research purposes.

The research center will be built in New Brunswick near Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, next door to the medical-education building, and will be run by administrators from Rutgers University and UMDNJ.

"We have been making steady progress in moving this institute forward," said Paz, who added he hopes to break ground on the facility this spring.

Similar facilities usually take two to three years to construct, Paz said. Plans for the building are now complete, and project administrators are currently awaiting appropriations from the state,
said Paz.

Early work on center research was done by Dr. Ira Black, former chair of the department of neuroscience and cell biology and a founding member of the Institute, who died earlier this year. Black developed neurons from stem cells and conducted research on how the cells could help with
neurological diseases, said Paz.

The Institute will include several labs in which scientists will conduct basic biology and scientific research, clinical facilities, which will provide the opportunity to do clinical trials for patients, and a conference center and space to hold meetings for stem-cell biologists and advocacy groups that want to learn more, said Paz.

Administrators are currently searching for a director for the institute and have interviewed several candidates. All candidates are world-class researchers in stem cell biology, said Paz, who envisions the institute as a stem-cell research hub and a magnet that will attract scientists
and medical professionals from around the world.

"This is an opportunity for New Jersey to be internationally recognized in this initiative," Paz said. "It's also an opportunity to transfer this technology to local companies that could commercialize and produce these treatments."

Stem-cell treatment could help patients such as those who suffer from heart disease by transplanting cells that could help new heart muscles grow, hospital officials said. Patients with spinal injuries could ideally use the therapy as well to regrow nerves, and patients who
suffer from Parkinson's disease would be able to regenerate certain neurons, said Paz.

Stem-cell research and treatment is a controversial subject because, in one method, embryos must be destroyed to extract the stem cells. Some groups believe destruction of embryos would constitute taking a human life and prefer research using adult stem cells.

In addition to contributing $150 million to build the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, then-Gov. Richard J. Codey also announced a public campaign for a $230 million bond issue to finance stem-cell research.