New Jersey to allow embryonic stem cell research

Critics of the state legislation say the accompanying ban on human cloning could be ineffective.

By Andis Robeznieks — Posted Jan. 26, 2004

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The New Jersey Assembly has narrowly approved a bill banning human reproductive cloning but allowing "therapeutic cloning" for the purpose of obtaining embryonic stem cells for research and, eventually, medical treatments.

A sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Neil Cohen said passing the bill was "the most important thing I will do in my lifetime, period."

He predicted that stem cell research would produce cures for many diseases and lead to on-site treatments for battlefield injuries and for people injured in civil disasters. One day, he said, stem cell tissue-replacement therapy will be so cheap that veterinarians will use it to treat pets.

"If this bill had been defeated, it would have set back medical research 50 years," Cohen said.

The state Senate unanimously approved the bill in December 2002, but anti-cloning activists were successful in stalling it in the lower house last February. Supporters mustered the 41 votes needed for passage Dec. 15, 2003.

Gov. James E. McGreevey signed the bill into law at the Kessler Rehabilitation Institute in West Orange, N.J., in a ceremony attended by paralyzed actor and stem cell research advocate Christopher Reeve.

The Medical Society of New Jersey supported the bill but didn't actively push for it. MSNJ President Mark Olesnicky, MD, said members lobbied independently and "did the footwork" with the society's blessing.

He said passing the bill was important for the state's financial and physical health. "The future of medicine depends very much and very highly on stem cell research," the Florham Park-based internist said.

Diversion of resources?

Many, however, disagree, including David Prentice, PhD, a member of the Christian Medical and Dental Assn. and co-founder of Do No Harm, the Coalition of Americans for Research Ethics. He said studying embryonic stem cells takes money and focus from research using adult stem cells or umbilical cord blood stem cells -- both of which already have been found to be medically useful.

"These are the cells that are actually treating patients," said Dr. Prentice, a professor of Life Science at Indiana State University, Terre Haute.

Although the bill criminalizes human cloning and even the intent to clone, it garnered concern that these provisions could be sidestepped by aborting a clone from a woman's womb and then experimenting on it.

"I think it's a horrific bill. Though supposedly it's meant to promote embryonic stem cell research, it actually approves human cloning," Dr. Prentice said. "It would allow implantation [of a cloned embryo], which I thought everybody -- except for maybe three people -- was against. ... If you don't go to the point of having a newborn, you haven't abrogated the law."

Trusting researchers' judgment

Shirley M. Tilghman, PhD, a molecular biologist and president of Princeton University, who supported the bill, said she trusts that the good judgment of researchers and regulators will keep the horrors Dr. Prentice warns against from coming to pass.

"There is literally no branch of scientific investigation where you cannot project into the future scenarios that are extremely inappropriate or unpalatable," she said. "I can take you through any branch of research and give you a scare scenario. Well, maybe not math, but anything else."

Speaking as a scientist and not for the university, Dr. Tilghman added that the bill does not address "the largest barrier" to embryonic stem cells research: Bush administration policies that restrict federal funding to research conducted on stem cell lines created before Aug. 9, 2001.

Cohen acknowledged that the bill provides no new funds for research. "New Jersey is like every other state. We have no money," he said. "But this is a green light for private money."

Because New Jersey is home to several pharmaceutical companies, Cohen and others said nongovernment sources exist to fund research.

After California became the first state to allow embryonic stem cell research, Stanford University received an anonymous $12 million gift to conduct such research.

"I think that will happen here, too," Dr. Olesnicky said.

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External links

Text of New Jersey Assembly bill 2840, permitting human stem cell research (link)

Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research news release applauding New Jersey's landmark stem cell legislation (link)

Statement of the Catholic bishops of New Jersey on stem cell research (link)

AMA policy on cloning for biomedical research (H-140.890) (link)

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