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A stem cell pioneer applauds state's efforts as 'substantive'

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The Star-Ledger
Tuesday, October 30, 2007
BY KITTA MacPHERSON

A pioneer of stem cell science yesterday described New Jersey's efforts to establish a strategic foothold in the field as "substantive" and well-timed.

"Of the known players, what New Jersey is putting on the table is really substantive," said John Gearhart, director of the Stem Cell Program at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Maryland.

In 1998, the molecular biologist and his team were the first in the world to extract "pluripotent" stem cells -- able to generate all the various types of cells in the body -- from human embryos.

Gearhart spoke favorably of the $270 million that has already been approved by New Jersey's Legislature for construction of five stem cell research centers and a $450 million bond issue to support researchers and their programs that is up for public vote Nov. 6.

"To be counted on as a state that is progressive, that is receptive to newer kinds of technological approaches to science, that has a lot of traction," he said. Timing matters, he added, because acting early in relation to other states will put New Jersey in an advantageous position when it comes to earning patents, drawing top talent, and building its program.

Asked whether he was being pursued by state leaders to head its stem cell efforts, he said Rutgers neuroscientist Wise Young "has put the armlock on" but that he has not made any commitment. Gearhart's home state, Maryland, has invested very little in the technology, he said. His only beef with the New Jersey plan is that it goes against his belief that money be spent on researchers first. The buildings come later, he said.

Gearhart made his comments during a third annual symposium held in New Brunswick by the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology to showcase local talent and research results on stem cells. Eight scientists presented detailed results on topics including using stem cells to treat cancer and spinal cord injuries.

Hundreds more displayed their work on posters displayed in a full-sized banquet room.
"I've got to tell you, I'm very impressed with the quality and quantity of science going on in our state in the area of stem cell science," said Robert Hariri, the chief executive officer of the cellular therapeutics division of Celgene Corp. in Summit, at the close of the conference.

Asked whether he supports the stem cell bond issue, Hariri, a Republican who leans to the conservative side, said, "Of course!"

With a week to go before the election, campaigning both for and against the stem cell research bond issue is hitting high gear.

A radio and television ad campaign against the bond issue is being run by political consultant Rick Shaftan with money raised by Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan, a former Republican candidate for governor who opposes more government borrowing.

Shaftan, president of Moutaintop Media, said the stem cell referendum "has got a lot of motivated opposition to it."

"We are saying, send a message to Trenton that enough is enough," Shaftan said. "We are confident we will spend near $500,000, maybe a little more by the time this is done."

State Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) said yesterday he is going to spend $100,000 from the Senate Democratic Majority campaign fund, which he controls, to run radio ads in favor of the referendum. The ads, he said, will feature Tricia Riccio, the mother of wrestler Carl Riccio, who was paralyzed during a high school wrestling match in 2003.