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Jersey allows stem cell use in research

McGreevey says law encourages creation of lifesaving medicine

Monday, January 5, 2004
Matthew J. Dowling
The Star-Ledger

Flanked by patients suffering from neurological diseases and spinal cord injuries, Gov. James E. McGreevey signed legislation yesterday making New Jersey the second state in the nation to promote stem cell research.

Christopher Reeve, who was paralyzed in 1995 during a horseback riding accident, called the new law "the proudest day" for his home state. He said stem cell research has shown the potential to lead to cures for diseases like diabetes, cancer, multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.

"It opens one of the most promising lines of inquiry that research medicine has ever developed," Reeve told a crowd that overflowed the conference hall at the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, where he underwent physical therapy. "Embryonic stem cells have the ability to become any tissue or cell type in the human body. The potential is absolutely unlimited."

Reeve, who grew up in Princeton, had lobbied McGreevey and state legislators to permit the research, particularly experiments with embryonic stem cells. Anti-abortion activists oppose the research as "irresponsible" and "sinister," arguing it could lead to human cloning. New Jersey's Catholic bishops joined the opposition.

"This law will result in a grisly human experimentation and organ harvesting," said Marie Tasy, director of public and legislative affairs for New Jersey Right to Life. "It is truly a dark day for New Jersey. They actually opened the door to human cloning."

McGreevey said the legislation he signed specifically bans human cloning and makes it a crime punishable by up to 20 years in jail.

"This legislation is about providing lifesaving medicine," McGreevey said. "We can bring hope to thousands of citizens all across the state of New Jersey. Today, we celebrate the possible."

Reeve said stem cell research could lead to significant medical advances in the next two to five years that would silence critics.

"Whenever something truly great is accomplished, its birth is always attended by controversy and antagonism and naysayers," Reeve said. "And then, years later, we look back and wonder what all the fuss was about. This kind of scientific inquiry should not be stopped."

McGreevey said New Jersey's connections to the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries as well as the state's universities and medical schools make for an ideal environment for stem cell research.

"It will serve as a magnet to bring the scientists and the greatest minds into New Jersey to have the innovations take place here," said state Health and Senior Services Commissioner Clifton Lacy. "New Jersey will be at that forefront of scientific advancement for our country."

Reeve said New Jersey's leadership has already prompted other states to step up efforts to approve similar legislation. He said a vote has been scheduled in the Illinois Legislature later this month, and New York and Massachusetts are also addressing stem cell research.

The legislation passed the state Assembly last month by a single vote after a tense 45-minute debate. Assemblyman Rafael Fraguela (D-Hudson) was kicked out of the Republican Assembly caucus after he broke ranks to provide the deciding vote in favor of the bill.

"This legislative gift is for those who want their suffering to end," said Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union). "Let New Jersey gather the most accomplished scientific and research minds of the 21st century and embark upon an historic pathway to cures."

Despite the strong opposition during the Assembly vote, the bill signing yesterday at Kessler was without protesters. Dozens of paralysis victims and those who suffer from neurological disorders were joined by their families in Kessler's conference hall to watch McGreevey sign the bill.

Afterward, many of the patients posed for pictures with McGreevey and Reeve, including Watchung Hills Regional High School senior Carl Riccio, who was paralyzed in a wrestling accident in February. Riccio, 17, said he believes stem cell research holds the potential for him to walk again.

"It gives us hope for a cure in New Jersey instead of looking to other countries that are way ahead of us," Riccio said. "Hopefully, we can catch up and speed up the research."

Copyright © 2004, The Star-Ledger