TRENTON | After two years of political give and take, both houses of the Legislature passed a $270 million bond measure that advocates say will propel New Jersey to the forefront of stem cell research.
The bill now heads to Gov. Jon Corzine, who has indicated that he’ll sign the bill into law before Christmas.
Stem cell research has been hailed as a path toward revolutionary medical treatments and economic development opportunities. Opponents of the bill say it raises ethical questions and further burdens the state with debt not approved by voters.
“We’re going to have institutions and equipment that show a commitment by the state to have research statewide,” said Assemblyman Neil Cohen, D-Union County, one of the bill’s sponsors. The bill passed through the Senate earlier this year but returned to that house for a vote because of changes.
The measure for facilities and equipment is part of a two-phase plan that also includes $230 million in additional money for research which Cohen and others hope to place before voters in November.
Flemington resident Fred Ferrari was on the floor when the Assembly passed the measure in a 53-24 vote with three abstentions. In a motorized chair with a spinal cord injury, Ferrari said he became interested in stem cell research while going through Rehabilitation and has spoken to more than 50 groups during the past three years to raise awareness.
“As a spinal cord injured person, seeing the reticence by certain groups against it, that reticence to promote it and have it developed…I had to get out there,” Ferrari said afterward.
Other states like California are also moving forward on public financing for the burgeoning research field.
Under the bill approved Thursday, bonds issued by the state Economic Development Authority would dedicate $150 million for a Stem Cell Research Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick, which Rutgers University and UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson would jointly operate.
In Camden, the Coriell Institute for Medical Research would be part of a consortium including Rutgers, Robert Wood Johnson and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey that would operate new biomedical research facilities. The measure dedicates $50 million for that purpose.
Another $50 million would go toward stem cell research facilities in Newark which the New Jersey Institute of Technology would operate. The measure also provides $10 million for blood collection facilities in Bergen County and $10 million for cancer research to a facility in Essex County.
“Ultimately, all of these institutions will be working with each other,” said Cohen.
Coriell Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Joseph L. Mintzer said the funding would help attract a critical mass of world-class scientists that can push the envelope on new research.
The Coriell Institute has already studied embryonic stem cells, which are derived from human embryos and have the potential to develop into other types of cells in the body. That field has been called promising but has also sparked controversy because it presently involves the destruction of the embryos.
Mintzer said the measure’s impact on embryonic stem cell research would depend on the scientists whom are eventually recruited.
No matter the purpose, Senate Minority Leonard Lance, R-Hunterdon/Warren, said he voted against the bonding out of principle because it didn’t go before voters for approval.
The state government should not be bonding to create those centers, especially without voter approval, argued John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families.
They tell us there’s going to be an additional $230 million for research which they will let the public vote on,” Tomicki said. “If they can vote on $230 million, why not on $270 million?”
In 2005, New Jersey became the first state to fund stem cell research, distributing grants totaling $5 million to 17 researchers.
Martin C. Bricketto is Trenton correspondent for The Express-Times. He can be reached at 609-292-5154.
By Martin C. Bricketto