N. J. to Vote on Funding Stem Cell Research

New Jersey voters will decide this week whether to spend $450 million to fund stem cell research in their state. The bond issue is expected to pass, placing New Jersey at the top of the list of states spending large amounts of public money on stem cell research.

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This week, voters in New Jersey will weigh in on whether to spend $450 million on stem cell research. If the ballot measure passes, New Jersey would join a growing number of states that are making an end run around the Bush administration, which banned research on almost all embryonic stem cells.

Nancy Solomon has a report.

NANCY SOLOMON: Wise Young is a physician and researcher at Rutgers University, who's been a fierce advocate for stem cell research for several years. In a sparkling new lab on the campus, he transplants healthy embryonic stem cells into rats with spinal cord injuries.

Dr. WISE YOUNG (Physician, Researcher, Rutgers University): Let me see. I think this is a rat that's walking. So there are many therapies. They're making animals walk. We need to translate some of these things to humans.

SOLOMON: Embryonic stem cells can turn into every kind of cell in the body. That is what gives them such therapeutic promise, but also makes them controversial because the very earliest stage of a human embryo is destroyed to harvest the cells.

The embryos usually come from women undergoing in-vitro fertilization. While opponents say these frozen embryos should be saved and adopted, Young says there's been very little demand and the majority are never used.

Dr. YOUNG: Very few people know that every time an in-vitro fertilization procedure occurs, they have an excess of eggs - thousands of them. And what is the choice? The choice is putting them down the drain, which is the typical way that these things are being thrown out versus taking the cells and using them to save lives.

SOLOMON: There's widespread support for stem-cell research in New Jersey. Even 48 percent of evangelicals and Catholics support the ballot question, according to a recent poll.

That might be why the lawn signs opposing it don't even mention stem cells. Instead, they warn against the looming hike in property taxes. Marie Tacy of New Jersey Right to Life says people don't need to be against abortion to oppose the ballot question.

Ms. MARIE TACY (Executive Director, New Jersey Right to Life): This is research gone amok. I think the case can also be made that it's immoral to force taxpayers to pay for something that's going to raise their property taxes and not disclose that to the voters.

SOLOMON: Like a red flag to a bull, any mention of raising property taxes is all it takes to strike fear in many New Jersey voter. The state has the highest taxes in the nation. And all those stem-cell funding would only cost pennies per resident. It's a potent argument that fits on a bumper sticker.

But even the most ardent supporters of stem cell research have mixed feelings about state funding. Sean Tipton of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research says federal funding is more efficient and produces better results.

Mr. SEAN TIPTON (Vice President, Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research): The downside is, for scientists, they want to be able to do their work and do it with as little political interference as possible and not have to figure out, oh, I can work with this scientist because they're in California. But I can't work with this other one because they're working out of Michigan. So, you know, I think scientists want to work with and collaborate with the best scientists from around the world.

SOLOMON: Wise Young at Rutgers agrees that federal funding would be better. But he doesn't think New Jersey should wait for the political tide to turn. If the ballot question passes, he says, the state will become a major player and be able to recruit top scientists.

If there comes a day when the federal government funds stem-cell research, Young says New Jersey's laboratories will be up and running and ready to put that money to immediate us.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Solomon in South Orange, New Jersey.

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