Fight for Cure In ‘Laboratories Of Democracy’

By June Walker

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.

The need to clear the path for scientists to conduct lifesaving biomedical discoveries through stem-cell research has re-emerged as a national issue, especially since the passing of actor Christopher Reeve. Such discoveries could lead to treatments and cures for diseases that plague more than 100 million Americans, such as diabetes, Parkinson’s, cancer, Alzheimer’s and a host of others, including those disproportionately affecting the Jewish community: Canavan disease, Familial Dysautonomia, Gaucher’s disease, and Tay-Sachs.

At the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, scientist continue to conduct research on some of the oldest stem-cell lines approved by the National Institutes of Health and are leading the way in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease by utilizing stem cells to generate dopaminergic neurons. When injected into the brain of Parkinson’s patients, these neurons replace damaged cells and hold great promise for reducing the diseases’ debilitating symptoms.

Closer to home, a team of researchers at the Cooper Hospital of Robert Wood Johnson Medical Center in New Jersey — with the support of Jacob’s Cure, an organization committed to finding a cure for Canavan disease — has already found data that suggests stem cells have reversed the effects in laboratory animals with similar brain chemistry to those with Canavan disease. Moreover, stem cells have had an even greater impact when injected into the brains of animals already treated with a gene-therapy protocol designed for Canavan children. As anyone can imagine, this is reason for great hope.

Unfortunately, with the federal restrictions still in place to limit funding for stem-cell research, policy has not kept apace with science. Therefore, it is up to the states to enable research to unlock the potential of this pioneering science. With that in mind, next March members of Hadassah will travel to all 50 state capitals to encourage legislators to find funding for stem-cell research. There is cause for hope, as three states have already taken major steps in the right direction.

On Election Day, voters in California overwhelmingly passed Proposition 71, thereby creating a formal program to allocate $3 billion in state bonds over the next 10 years to stem-cell research.

Spurred on by California’s achievement, two internationally prominent New Jersey scientists, Drs. Wise Young of Rutgers University and Ira Black of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, recently challenged legislators to propose a $1 billion bond measure paid out over five years to fund the state’s ambitious effort to advance this critically important biotechnology. New Jersey has already committed $9.5 million to build the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey and to recruit investigators. Rutgers and the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, which will co-manage the facility, have pledged an additional $2 million.

And last week, Wisconsin Governor James Doyle announced plans to invest nearly $750 million to support embryonic stem-cell research. His plan, which would combine private funding with public financing, would go toward the building of two research centers and support scientists studying Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular illnesses and other disorders. Parts of his proposal are subject to the State Legislature’s approval.

While admirable, in comparison with California’s unprecedented commitment, these efforts are but a start. By dedicating such a huge amount of funding to exploring stem cells, the Golden State stands on the brink of a level of scientific achievement and leadership that has never been seen before.

California has become the first state to create an extensive program to fund a single field of scientific research. New Jersey and Wisconsin could be next in line to forge ahead with medical progress. In fact, the Garden State has the wherewithal to outshine its West Coast counterpart because of its unparalleled strength in the pharmaceutical industry.

More importantly, New Jersey, along with California and Wisconsin, can lead the way on a cause that the vast majority of Americans support. A recent national study conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation for Results for America, a project of the Civil Society Institute, found that Americans support lifting the Bush administration’s restrictions on stem-cell research by an overwhelming 74%-21%.

We are doing a great injustice to humanity and to the future if we allow ourselves to be frightened by the unknown. Imagine what our world would be like if Alexander Fleming, John Sheehan and Andrew Moyer had not invented penicillin. Today, illnesses from pneumonia and strep throat to meningitis and rheumatic fever are easily treated, but in the days before they developed this “miracle drug,” thousands of people died each year from these diseases.

When the voters of California passed Proposition 71, they took a bold step — one that all states should consider. Indeed, it is now imperative for New Jersey to heed the call to action from Young and Black by introducing directly to voters a ballot measure that would make $1 billion available for stem-cell research. In Wisconsin, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to express its overwhelming support for Doyle by immediately taking up and passing his proposed stem cell plan.

Such brave action would breathe new life into the famous words of Justice Louis Brandeis, who said that the states are the “laboratories of democracy.”

June Walker is national president of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, which owns and operates the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, the Middle East’s most advanced medical facility.



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