Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Budget cuts endanger stem-cell research in N.J.

It seems like just yesterday that Gov. Corzine was pushing to put New Jersey on the cutting edge of stem-cell research.

It seems like just yesterday that Gov. Corzine was pushing to put New Jersey on the cutting edge of stem-cell research.

What a difference a recession makes.

Last month, Corzine cut $13 million from this year's state budget for stem-cell research after slicing $21 million in January.

The cuts effectively eliminated state funding for stem-cell research for the year, although Treasury spokesman Tom Bell said the budget remained fluid and funding could become available.

New Jersey was only the second state in the nation to approve research using embryonic stem cells, which is opposed by some right-to-life groups because human embryos are destroyed in the process of removing their stem cells.

California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Maryland are among the other states investing in stem-cell research. In California, voters approved a statewide ballot measure in 2004 to provide $3 billion for stem-cell research. Pennsylvania has funded some stem-cell research in the past but not in the current fiscal year.

In New Jersey, some worry the dramatic reduction in funding threatens the state's status as one of the early leaders in stem-cell research, a field advocates say could lead to treatments for spinal-cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease, among other ailments. Supporters had also hoped stem-cell research could serve as an economic engine in New Jersey, creating jobs.

"It's very bad timing to lose this funding right now," said Martin Grumet, director of the Rutgers Stem Cell Research Center. "If someone doesn't step up soon to restore it, we're going to lose whatever advantage and momentum we've had compared to places like Australia, England, and Israel that are moving very rapidly."

Corzine's spending cuts were among close to $1.3 billion in midyear adjustments to close a budget gap created by declining revenues. And they show just how much the governor has had to adjust his expectations, even in an area he once championed, in light of the tumbling economy.

"Just look at the missed opportunity in stem-cell research," the governor lamented in his State of the State speech in January. "That research would not only save lives . . . it would have potentially driven an economic boon for the medicine-chest state of the world."

Corzine said Friday that some state money would remain available for stem-cell research, although he described it as "dramatically less than I would like."

Bell, the Treasury spokesman, said, "If someone with a worthy stem-cell research project came to us for a grant, we would have funding for it" in either the fiscal 2009 or fiscal 2010 budgets.

The governor said federal funding for stem-cell research is expected to increase substantially under the Obama administration and suggested New Jersey could make up for cuts in state funding through federal sources.

"We're going to compete very aggressively for the relatively large increase in funding from [the National Institutes of Health] that's in the economic recovery and reinvestment program," Corzine said. "The new president understands it's very difficult for states to take on this burden, so it's something he's put into federal priorities."

Researchers and advocates also expect President Obama to lift a ban on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research set by his predecessor, George W. Bush. Under Bush, federal dollars could be used only to support research using several dozen stem-cell colonies, or "lines," that were already in existence. Newer stem-cell lines, including donated ones derived from infertility-treatment embryos that would otherwise be discarded, cannot be studied using federal funds.

The recent round of state budget cuts is only the latest blow to stem-cell research in New Jersey, though. The biggest came in November 2007, when state voters rejected a $450 million bond referendum to finance stem-cell research. The money was intended to fund the research in New Jersey for a decade, and Corzine personally contributed $150,000 for the bond campaign.

The vote came just days after a ceremony in New Brunswick to herald the start of construction on a $150 million research facility for the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey.

Most attributed the defeat of the ballot initiative to residents' fiscal concerns rather than concerns over the ethics of using embryonic stem cells.

Whatever the case, the vote placed in jeopardy the future of the $270 million approved by the Legislature in 2006 to build several research facilities, including $50 million for a biomedical research center in Camden. Plans for the facilities have been placed on hold, although about 50 scientists continue to work at various labs throughout the state.

Another setback came when one of the Legislature's leading proponents of stem-cell research, former Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D., Union), was indicted in December on charges of child pornography. Cohen had proposed legislation to encourage private investors to fund stem-cell research.

Senate President Richard J. Codey, an avid supporter of stem-cell research, said recently that he disagreed with the governor's decision to cut so much state funding.

"I can understand some cuts, but not of that magnitude," Codey said. "It's about saving lives, prolonging lives. I look at it as God's work.

"I understand the institute for the near future is not going to get built until the economy turns around, but in the meantime, I don't want research to stop," Codey added.

Grumet said the latest budget cuts put stem-cell research on uncertain ground.

He said that Rutgers had submitted several grant proposals to the state and that he has been told the state did not know when it might review those grants.

In the meantime, Grumet plans to apply for funds from the federal government and private sources. But if those grants don't come through quickly, the university could lose researchers it worked hard to recruit, whose positions are dependent on grants.

Joseph R. Bertino, interim director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, declined to comment on the latest budget cuts.

Gerald Carey, a spokesman for the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, said, "UMDNJ understands the state's need to set clear spending priorities in today's challenging fiscal climate. At the same time, grant-funded research at the Stem Cell Institute continues on campuses throughout the state by the faculty members at UMDNJ and Rutgers University who are members of the institute.

"These decisions have an important impact, and we are concerned that adverse economic trends across the country could continue to affect stem-cell research efforts in the future."