News and Reports
Long, hard road to stem cell labs
- Million-dollar research effort has faced hurdles from the start -
BY KITTA MacPHERSON AND KATE COSCARELLI
Two weeks ago, as the Nobel Prizes in medicine, physics and chemistry were being announced, Rutgers University researcher Wise Young was stressing out. There was a hot rumor that some of the scientists whom he and others had been wooing to head and staff the New Jersey Stem Cell Institute in New Brunswick might win a prize.
"I was having a heart attack," Young said. "If they won, they would double their salary request. How could we afford it?"
In the end, the scientists weren't chosen, but Young's emotional few days help illustrate the roller-coaster history of the drive to bring a world-class stem cell research center to the state.
Leaders from government, universities and business, including Gov. Jon Corzine, will gather this afternoon for the center's ceremonial groundbreaking in New Brunswick. It will be called the Christopher Reeve Pavilion after the late "Superman" star, a Princeton native and stem cell advocate paralyzed in a 1995 horse-riding accident.
Though $9.1 million in funding is in place for the center's construction, the salaries for those who will work there are not. That will depend on whether voters approve a $450 million bond issue Nov. 6 designed to fund researchers' salaries over a 10-year period at research facilities in North and South Jersey.
"Leadership on this issue is ours to lose," said Kenneth Breslauer, Rutgers' vice president for health science partnerships, referring to public opinion polls showing most voters favor embryonic stem cell science. "We have the momentum -- the governor's support and the people's support. Only an undefined roadblock could stop us now."
One potential roadblock is a lawsuit filed by right-to-life groups seeking to block the vote because they contend the ballot language is misleading. The groups and the state disagree over whether the word "cloning" should be included on the ballot question. It currently is not.
The issue remained unresolved after a hearing by a state Appellate Division panel in Newark yesterday.
After listening to 90 minutes of arguments, the head of a three-judge panel deemed it unlikely that the panel would stop the vote, but reserved decision until later this week. The action would come quickly enough, Judge Edwin Stern said, to allow an appeal.
The effort to support research into stem cells -- chameleon-like entities that can morph into many types of tissue and body parts -- has run into obstacle after obstacle since it first became law in January 2004.
Even the first step wasn't easy. The legislation signed by former Gov. Jim McGreevey at a West Orange rehabilitation center with Reeve at his side passed the state Assembly by a single vote after a tense, 45-minute debate.
McGreevey's resignation in the summer of 2004 caused supporters to fret over the fate of stem cell research here. But Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) and Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union) stepped up and championed the issue, Breslauer said.
The men gained legislative approval to fund construction. However, they had to compromise -- committing to build not just one central facility in New Brunswick, but four more.
Right-to-life activists have lobbied against the efforts since the early 2000s, based on the view that the use of embryonic stem cells in research is immoral.
A Rutgers University report released yesterday concluded that investment in stem cell research would aid the state economy, adding as much as $2.2 billion in economic activity.
Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, dismissed the study as self-serving. "It should be noted that the study was done by the very institution that stands to get rich from the $450 million boondoggle which will be paid for with our tax dollars," she said.
Legislators like Cohen have worked closely with officials representing the Roman Catholic Church to find a way through its moral objections. He led efforts to include adult stem cells -- drawn from placentas, umbilical cords and fat -- as part of the program. Some Catholics now embrace the overall research plan, while others do not.
Supporters argue that the use of adult stem cells distinguishes the effort from the state-funded program in California, which is devoted solely to research on embryonic stem cells.
"To us, it doesn't matter where stem cells come from if they work," said Rutgers' Young, who plans to stage clinical trials at the New Jersey facility using adult stem cells from umbilical cord blood to treat spinal cord injuries. "In New Jersey, we are going to go where the best science leads us."
Scientists believe stem cells, both embryonic and adult versions, will be vital to future medical treatments and cures for hopeless ailments, from paralysis to Parkinson's disease.
The research, to be overseen by the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology and an out-of-state peer review committee, will focus on techniques close to commercialization.
Breslauer said Rutgers is committed to building and staffing the center whether or not the bond issue passes.
"I would hate to think that New Jersey voters would be denied the treatments that will come as a result of this work," said the 59-year-old Breslauer. "This is a journey toward treatment."
Kitta MacPherson may be reached at email@example.com or (973) 392-5836, Kate Coscarelli at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-4147.