Collaboration is Key to Scientific Progress

by Rutgers President Richard L. McCormick
As submitted; published in NJBIZ on December 5, 2006

We are at an exciting juncture in medical history. New discoveries could soon revolutionize the treatment of currently incurable disease. Stem cells, in particular, have the potential to produce broad-based therapies for the 21^st century in much the way antibiotics, the wonder drugs of the last century, eliminated deadly infections.

To get to that point, however, will require very different strategies than those employed 65 years ago. In the 1940s, when Rutgers scientists conducted their breakthrough research on antibiotics, they spent arduous, solitary hours in a small basement laboratory painstakingly sifting through countless soil samples, looking for microorganisms that could kill disease-causing bacteria.

Medical research is still an arduous endeavor, and it is more challenging and expensive than ever. Where bacterial infections had a clear external cause that new drugs could quickly eliminate, today's intractable diseases arise from abnormalities within the body's own vital mechanisms. Getting nerve cells to regenerate, cancer to cease growing, or the pancreas to produce insulin is a far more complex challenge.

As a result, today's innovative research requires sophisticated equipment housed in modern facilities and operated by experienced staff.

More important, it involves teams of highly educated scientists working collaboratively across an array of disciplines from biology to chemistry, from physics to pharmacy, from engineering to computer science.

Twenty-first century research is not something that any one person or any one institution can do alone. If New Jersey is to maintain its role as a leader in life-saving medical advances, we must foster collaboration through new, well-equipped centers of excellence that attract a cadre of exceptional scientists able to translate new knowledge into useful outcomes.

Several existing New Jersey centers serve as stellar models of collaboration, including the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine, the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, the New Jersey Center for Biomaterials, and the Cancer Institute of New Jersey. These joint enterprises draw on the best minds from Rutgers, from UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, and from research institutions across the state and nation.

We must now do the same for stem cell research. In 2004, the state established the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey as a joint project of Rutgers and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School. The late Ira Black at the medical school and Wise Young at Rutgers provided inspirational and visionary leadership at the institute's inception, initiating promising research focused on neurological disorders.

Now is the time to build on that momentum with a well-financed facility that will assure New Jersey's place in the top ranks of medical science.

The rewards could be tremendous. Stem cells have the potential to provide the long-sought remedy for the devastation of spinal cord injury, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, brain injury, diabetes, and a host of other life-threatening disorders.

The economic benefits could also be substantial. A recent study by Rutgers economist Joseph J. Seneca estimates conservatively that a $380 million state investment in stem cell research would generate $1.4 billion in new economic activity over the next 20 years, along with nearly 20,000 new jobs and approximately $72 million in additional taxes and royalties for the state.

The New Jersey Legislature is expected to vote this December on a bill to fund the Stem Cell Institute facility. By allocating these funds, legislators will help realize a far-sighted and bold vision for a strongly collaborative institute that will greatly benefit our citizens and our economy. We must not let this opportunity pass. Just as we did in the 1940s, New Jersey can again make medical history, but only if we grasp the opportunity to work together in this vital field.