by Debbie Hart

After a long and challenging road, the New Jersey State Legislature approved legislation in June authorizing a $450 million bond referendum to support stem cell research. And demonstrating his commitment to this important resource, Governor Jon S. Corzine signed the legislation in July, giving voters the opportunity to authorize the general obligation bonds when it appears on the ballot in this November’s elections.

And so now it’s up to all of us to take up the promise of hope that biomedical research offers and move it closer to fruition. The referendum gives New Jersey’s citizens the opportunity to take a bold step in tackling some of this nation’s and the world’s most pressing medical issues. If approved, the bonds will be used to provide the long-term funding needed to support research into some of the most devastating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, diabetes, cancer, and countless other diseases, and follow legislation passed last fall that provided $270 million to build or expand stem cell research facilities in Allendale, Belleville, Camden, Newark, and New Brunswick.

The members of BioNJ (formerly Biotechnology Council of New Jersey) urge voters to support this measure and ask you to speak to your families, friends, and neighbors about supporting this vital initiative because we in New Jersey cannot afford to let this measure fail.

When it comes to improving the lives of our families and neighbors, we are all in this together. We can ill afford not to support the referendum because of the impact that biomedical research can and will have on public health, our social fabric, New Jersey’s proud tradition as a world leader in medical research and our state’s economy.

The message of stem cell research is one of hope for the future. According to the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, thousands of our loved ones will die prematurely within the next two decades from some of the nation’s most common conditions — Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal cord injuries, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, brain injuries, rheumatoid arthritis, leukemia, and other cancers — if we are not successful in finding new and better treatments.

Once we understand how stem cells produce muscles, nerves, skin, bone, and other tissues, researchers believe we will be able to unlock the secrets of the body that will help us to rebuild damaged or diseased parts of the body. The possibility that stem cells might one day be used to regenerate nerve cells within a severed spinal cord or replace lost heart muscle following heart attacks is breathtaking — and real.

The simple truth is that we are close and we are getting closer. As just one example, the National Institutes of Health reported that in a recent study scientists directed mouse embryonic stem cells to differentiate into neurons that produce dopamine, which is lacking in Parkinson’s patients. When transplanted into the brains of a rat model of Parkinson’s, these dopamine-producing neurons reinnervated the brains of the rat Parkinson model, released dopamine, and improved motor function.

Based on this and other groundbreaking biomedical research, scientists are developing strategies for inducing such neurons from human stem cells for transplantation into humans with Parkinson’s disease. If successful, an unlimited supply of dopamine-supplying neurons could make neurotransplantation widely available for Parkinson’s sufferers.

Although saving and enhancing lives should always be our primary objective, the potential benefits of biomedical research are broader. The social benefits that will flow from biomedical research include improvements in quality of life for patients, reducing the stress on families caring for sick relatives, and helping to ensure a healthier and therefore more productive workforce.

And there is also the very practical consideration of finding new ways to manage medical costs even while the number of “Baby Boomers” reaching middle age continues to rise. According to the National Parkinson’s Foundation, each patient spends an average of $2,500 a year for medications, while the estimates of costs of medical care, disability payments, and lost income exceed $5.6 million annually and this cost will only go higher as our population ages. And one needs to only apply that model to cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, and other diseases to know that the potential costs are staggering. From that perspective alone, an investment of $450 million in research over a 10-year period is a bargain that we can’t pass up.

By many standards, the proposed allocation of $450 million over a 10-year period is actually a modest investment, but it is an investment that will produce significant economic benefits to the state’s economy.

In 2006, Rutgers’ Professor Joseph Seneca estimated that the state’s stem cell initiatives 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.

That’s important because just a few years ago only a handful of states were considering investments in stem cell research, but that situation is changing rapidly. States such as Maryland and Pennsylvania have announced plans to invest in stem cell and biomedical research. California, Minnesota, and Wisconsin have already begun allocating public funds for research.

As a result, the competition within the United States to attract the best and the brightest in biomedical research is increasing rapidly, and this competitive atmosphere does not take into account the efforts expended by other countries such as China, Japan, the countries of Western Europe, and Australia.

Passage of this referendum means wonderful discoveries taking place in our own back yard that may just benefit your father, mother, son, or daughter. And for this reason, it is important to acknowledge the courage and leadership of Governor Corzine, Senate President Richard J. Codey, and Assemblyman Neil M. Cohen. They led this important charge, and now it is up to us to finish the job.

New Jersey is known as the nation’s “medicine chest” because of the concentration of life sciences companies and their workers who call New Jersey home. And now the citizens of New Jersey are faced with a choice. We have the choice in New Jersey to be leaders in this brave new world that builds on our tradition of excellence, or we can sit idly by and watch others take our rightful place.

We urge voters to vote for a better future for the people of New Jersey and the world. Vote for hope.

Hart is CEO of BioNJ, formerly the Biotechnology Council of New Jersey on AAA Drive (www.biotechnj.org).

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