Stem Cells – Will We Lead or Follow?

The events in Washington this week dealt a crushing blow to the millions of Americans fighting life-threatening or debilitating illnesses. After both houses finally approved a bill to ease the crippling restrictions on stem cell research, President Bush resorted to the heavy-handed veto tactic for the first time in his presidency to deny hope to millions of people.

The illogical message sent by the President is that embryos left over from in vitro fertilization procedures should not be used to advance life-saving medical research, but instead should be thrown away. Clearly, we cannot put faith in George Bush to provide the right leadership nor can we expect Washington Republicans to stand up to the President. This latest development underscores the urgency of our own initiatives here in New Jersey.

We have put forward two proposals that would fund construction of the New Jersey Stem Cell Institute and provide the long-term research funding scientists need to go to work on stem cell therapies. This institute can be the center of activity where hope translates into real therapies – a place that will attract the best scientists, serve as a hub for research and clinical trials, shine as a beacon for patients, and offer the best shot at finding cures. The long-term funding proposal would provide grants to qualified research applicants to pursue all forms of stem cell research – adult, embryonic, and placental -with the strictest scientific and ethical oversight possible. These proposals have passed the Senate and now await approval from the Assembly.

Last year, while I was Governor, New Jersey became the first state to award public funds for human embryonic stem cell research and the first to establish a public umbilical and placental stem cell bank. And just recently on a trade mission to China, Governor Corzine met with a delegation of stem cell scientists to cull support for New Jersey’s efforts. But, our window of opportunity to be a leader is rapidly narrowing.

When we first proposed these initiatives, we were one of only a handful of states advancing stem cell research. Now, two years later, neighboring states like Maryland and Pennsylvania have announced plans to invest in stem cell and biomedical research. Harvard unveiled plans for a new state of the art stem cell laboratory. California, Minnesota and Wisconsin have already begun allocating public funds for research. Countries like China, Japan, England and Australia are breaking new ground every day.

New Jersey is now faced with the choice of investing in a science that has the potential to revolutionize modern medicine, ease human suffering and radically transform our approach to debilitating and life-threatening conditions. Our other option is to sit idly by while other states and countries lead the way, taking our pharmaceutical and biotech industries, our jobs, and our incomes with them.

With our first rate universities and some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical and biotech companies, we still have the inherent advantage to succeed scientifically. But as statistics have shown, New Jersey’s high-tech jobs are already under attack from other states.

Since 1990, we have lost more than a quarter of our share of the nation’s pharmaceutical and medicine industry. Our share of scientific research and development jobs is also on the decline. These are key engines of our economy. Technology workers, who comprise only 7 percent of total employment in New Jersey, generate approximately 30 percent of the state’s income tax revenue. Without a significant and sustained investment we will continue to see our share of the nation’s jobs in these industries decline, creating disastrous ripple effects on our economy.

A relatively modest investment on our part now can provide an enormous return to our state. Last year, Rutgers Professor Joseph Seneca estimated that our proposals could generate billions of dollars in new economic activity, more than 20,000 new jobs and nearly $100 million in new state revenue over the next 20 years alone. This does not even include the “proximity effect” our institute will have by drawing related industry and start-up activities to New Jersey. In addition, his research indicated there would be very large benefits from reduced health care costs, fewer work days lost to illness, and lower mortality rates.

Recent reports show that stem cells may be the key to curing the most obstinate and feared disease in generations – cancer. This new breakthrough only adds to the promise stem cells have already shown to treat conditions such as spinal cord injuries, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

For millions of people around the world, stem cell research offers the possibility of a vastly improved quality of life. For these people and their families, the time to invest has to be now. In five or ten years, New Jersey will be remembered by how we handle this moment. Did we lead or did we follow?