Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey
 
 

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Ground broken for groundbreaking stem-cell site

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Home News Tribune Online 10/24/07
By CHRISTINE SPARTA
STAFF WRITER
csparta@eastbrun.gannett.com

RUTGERS — A long-awaited day finally came for supporters of stem-cell research in New Jersey.

Gov. Jon S. Corzine, state Senate President Richard Codey, D-Essex, and Stephen K. Jones, president and CEO of Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital, were among those on hand Tuesday for the groundbreaking ceremony for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey and its Christopher Reeve Pavilion.

The new facility will take up five floors of an 18-story tower on Little Albany Street in New Brunswick. Three floors will be devoted to research laboratories. The Stem Cell Institute will be a joint Rutgers University/UMDNJ operation.

"This is an exciting moment, maybe the most exciting since I've become governor," said Corzine. "We need to send the message loud and clear that New Jersey is strongly in support of this effort."

One issue weighing on the minds of all the speakers was the upcoming Nov. 6 election. People going to the polls will get the chance to vote for or against the New Jersey Stem Cell Research Bond Act, a measure that would involve spending $450 million for stem-cell-research grants to eligible institutions over a 10-year period.

Research has shown that stem cells, which are found throughout the body in areas like the umbilical cord, bone marrow and blood, can replicate and grow into different cell types. It has been shown that when stem cells morph in this way they have the potential to help people with conditions such as diabetes, leukemia and Parkinson's disease. Embryonic stem cells, however, are especially desirable research fodder because they can grow into just about any cell in the body except sperm and egg cells.

The issue of embryonic stem-cell research has sparked a moral debate for quite some time. Some opponents of this research fear that it will lead to human cloning.

Last month, New Jersey Right to Life and some other individual plaintiffs unsuccessfully filed suit over the wording on the ballot regarding the stem-cell issue. These opponents said citizens should know that sales and property taxes could be used to pay back the bonds and that human cloning could result from the research.

The group has taken its case to appellate court and a ruling is expected this week. There is a possibility the case could go to the state Supreme Court.

Dr. Wise Young, a professor and chairman of the university's Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, is a staunch advocate of the ballot question.

"We must not be complacent. We must vote. We have to win large," said Young who thought the facility could be built as early as 2009.

The late actor Christopher Reeve's family was very pleased that the day came for this project to move ahead.

"It's an important step in terms of science and pushing the boundaries of knowledge," said Barbara Johnson, Christopher Reeve's mother, who helped unveil the image of the new center at the groundbreaking.

The Stem Cell Institute will have a Christopher Reeve Pavilion named in honor of the actor and stem-cell advocate who was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident in 1995 and died in 2004.

Reeve's brother, Benjamin, who wore a necklace with the Superman emblem and the motto of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation "Go Forward," spoke at the event.

"I know Christopher would say it's a great honor to have a building named after him. To have it called a pavilion is that much greater," a comment that drew laughs from the crowd. On a more serious note, he said that his brother would be most grateful for the work done there and that some people do comprehend the importance of stem cell research to save lives.

"Stem cell research is the new frontier. It has the potential of helping millions of people," said Scott Simpkins of Williamstown, who was in the audience.

Simpkins, 36, must use a wheelchair because of a spinal-cord injury he suffered during a vacation mountain biking trip to Colorado in August, 2000.

He was set to compete in a 24-hour bike race, but, prior to that, he hit a jump and fell 8 feet, landed on the side of his head and instantly broke his neck. Simpkins was paralyzed from the shoulders down.

Stem-cell research might give people like Simpkins the chance to regain more of their dexterity.

"I was told there was no hope for recovery," he said. "The doctors didn't want to give any hope."

It's not surprising Simpkins is an advocate of this technology, since he initially could only shrug his shoulders and eventually saw some improvement of movement.

"Stem cells may not give me the magic pill to pop me out of my chair, but it could at least offer incremental advances. This still signifies hope. Not all four-letter words are bad," Simpkins joked.

Simpkins was a software engineer for the Federal Aviation Administration, but after a 2006 layoff decided to shift careers and volunteer for the Philadelphia Legal Clinic for the Disabled. He plans to attend law school and possibly do advocacy work for the disabled.

Simpkins said advocacy is great, but it's the funding of scientific advancements that really might give him a brighter future.

"You have to invest in the research. I'm proud of New Jersey for doing that," he said.