PISCATAWAY — It looked empty, but the first piece of New Jersey’s new stem cell research center filled Saturday with the hopes and expectations of people who think it may change lives.
The center, in the New Brunswick area, is the nation’s first to be publicly funded, officials said. Acting Gov. Richard J. Codey told Saturday’s dedication ceremony that New Jersey’s researchers would spearhead efforts to improve health worldwide.
“We are opening … what some would call the doors of possibility, and unlocking the potential to ease suffering, treat and cure diseases, and save lives,” Codey said before cutting the ribbon on the laboratory.
The audience was filled with families whose loved ones suffer from incurable diseases or paralysis. As Codey spoke, Alex Pitts, 6, leaned back in his red motorized wheelchair and grabbed his mother’s hand, pressing it to his face.
An outgoing boy who smiles easily, Alex suffered a spinal cord injury at birth and has been paralyzed since.
His mother hopes that research on embryonic stem cells, which scientists think can be used to repair damaged tissue and thus cure diseases and spinal cord injuries, could open up a new, independent life for him.
Strength in his arm’s triceps muscles would permit Alex to move himself from wheelchair to bed, allowing him to live without help from an attendant.
“At this point, I would love a home run, but quality of life would do,” said Melissa Pitts, his mother.
Pitts and others credited Dr. Wise Young, a Rutgers University neuroscientist who championed the establishment of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, with renewing their hope. Young has grown close to many of the families that attended the ribbon-cutting. Walking through a hallway on Saturday, he was always a few steps from the next hug. One boy, whose sister is partially paralyzed because of cancer, asked for his autograph.
“When I first talked to Wise, he and Christopher Reeve were the ones who really gave us hope,” Pitts said.
A section of Saturday’s program honored Reeve, the actor and New Jersey native who played Superman and who became a champion for stem cell research after being paralyzed in 1995. Reeve died in 2004, but everywhere one looked on Saturday, Superman was there.
Richard Gaskin wore the superhero’s famous “S” on a gold dog tag as he performed a rap song titled “You’ll always be Superman.”
Gaskin, 40, said he hoped the center’s researchers would find a cure for the paralysis he has suffered since being shot in the neck in 1987.
“When a lot of new injuries come into the hospital, weeks or months later, they can walk out,” Gaskin said. “They don’t have to spend 20 years like myself in a wheelchair.”
The center is scheduled to open in a few years, Young said. He added that he thought clinical trials would show stem cells’ potential to cure diseases such as diabetes “in the next few months, the next few years at most.”
If that is the case, there are not enough embryonic stem cells to help all the patients that need them, Young said.
“This is a humanitarian crisis,” he said.
Many social conservatives oppose embryonic stem cell research because it requires the destruction of human embryos. Some critics compare the process to abortion.
John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families, said the Legislature is risking public investment in a field whose benefits have not been proved. Tomicki added that the Legislature should have asked for public approval for its initial investment of $270 million.
“They seem to be bent on moving into the embryonic field, which of course destroys human life,” Tomicki said. “Not one cure or treatment has evolved from embryonic research.”
The state, which thinks stem cell research could provide a boost to the state’s economy, is focusing next on funding research. The $270 million it approved last year is being spent on the buildings at Rutgers, the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark and a center in Camden.
The Legislature is close to approving a ballot initiative — the Senate has already passed a bill — that would ask voters in November to allot $300 million to $500 million for research, Codey said.
“The last thing we want is three empty buildings,” Young said.
By DAVID A. MICHAELS
NorthJersey.com STAFF WRITER