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State may fund stem cell work

If budget is passed, New Jersey will be first US state to invest in stem cell research

February 25, 2004
Theresa Tamkins
The Scientist Inc.

New Jersey could become the first state in the US to use public funds for stem cell research, according to a budget proposal announced Tuesday (February 24) by Governor James McGreevey.

“Today, I propose to go where no other state has gone—to invest state funds in your courage and the hopes of so many families—with the creation of a new research institute, the New Jersey Institute for Stem Cell Research,” said McGreevey in his budget address.

The Institute would be a joint project of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and Rutgers University and would be located in New Brunswick. The budget earmarks $6.5 million in state funds to be the included in a $10 million public/private stem cell fund, which will be used to attract top researchers from around the world. An additional $50 million in public and private funds will be used to support the institute over the following 5 years.

“It will put New Jersey at the forefront of medical and pharmaceutical research in this country,” said McGreevey. “And it will put us one step closer to fulfilling our dream—that some scientist will find a cure for the incurable.”

The budget has to be approved by the state legislature before the end of June, said a McGreevey spokesperson. “Their budget may not include it in the end, but this is something we are pushing for,” he said.

The proposal comes hard on the heels of a law passed last month that specifically outlawed reproductive cloning and promoted human embryonic stem cell research. That law made New Jersey only the second state, after California, to pass legislation promoting stem cell research.

Although scientists around the state said the law was a big step forward for stem cell research, it was considered to be largely symbolic because it provided no additional research funds. Many scientists were not aware that additional funding was even under consideration, said David P. Beck, president of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, NJ.

“Everyone was surprised,” Beck told The Scientist. However, “it's right on target, it's a timely kind of investment, and I can't tell you how happy I am to see the state leading the country on this.”

However, there may be a struggle to get the budget passed, Beck said. “This is going to be very controversial. Passing a law to permit research may be one thing, but spending state tax funds is something else quite again, so I think everyone has his work cut out for him to get this through,” he said. “There's going to be enormous debate—I think it will put huge pressure on the legislature.”

Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research (CAMR) said that even opponents of stem cell research should welcome the additional funding because of the oversight it brings. “If the funding was coming only from private organizations or commercially driven organizations, they are under no requirement to publish their results, but with public funding comes accountability, transparency, and buy-in for the public.”

California is also considering a ballot initiative that would float bonds to fund stem cell research to the tune of $3 billion over 10 years. “But California has financial problems aplenty, and we're waiting to see what happens with that ballot initiative in the fall,” said Perry.

If the budget proposal passes, New Jersey could become the place to be for US stem cell scientists, say researchers. “We do anticipate that this will serve as a magnet for the most talented stem cell researchers in the country and perhaps the world, so it's a very exciting prospect,” said Ira Black, director of the Stem Cell Research Center at UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. Black helped shape the budget proposal and would most likely codirect the New Jersey Institute for Stem Cell Research with Wise Young of Rutgers University.

However, this could also spur a brain drain between states, said CAMR's Perry, and “obviously, that is not good policy.”

“No state initiative—as laudatory as what New Jersey is doing—is a substitute for a national policy that would encourage the best scientists to do the most important research, share their findings openly, encourage public discussion, and create public guidelines,” Perry said.

The funds in the New Jersey proposal nearly match the entire federal budget for stem cell research, Perry noted. “They are proposing $50 million over the next 5 years, or $10 million a year,” he said. “The entire federal investment in embryonic stem cells is only $10 million.” A National Institutes of Health spokesperson confirmed that the federal budget for human embryonic stem cell research was $10.7 million in 2002.

Copyright © 2004, The Scientist Inc.