Richard L. McCormick’s Acceptance of 2006 Distinguished Citizen Award

The Melvyn H. Motolinsky Foundation
November 5, 2006

Thank you, Dr. Cliff Lacy, for those kind words, and thanks to all the members of the Motolinsky Foundation and especially to Dr. Parvin Saidi, Dr. Norman Reitman, and Mr. Jack Borrus for this distinguished honor.  Thanks also to Nan Motolinsky and the farsighted members of her family who turned the tragedy of Melvyn Motolinsky’s untimely death more than 35 years ago into a sustained force for medical advancement.
When I read the list of former recipients of the Distinguished Citizen Award, I am truly humbled.  They include some of New Jersey’s most illustrious scientific minds and some of our most successful academic and civic leaders, including Cliff Lacy, Ralph Voorhees, Norman Reitman, and Jack Borrus.  Although undeserving of this award, I am honored to be included in their company.

Because I am a historian by training as well as Rutgers’ president, I would like to take a few minutes this afternoon to offer my perspective on the progress of medical science.  There is no doubt that these are momentous times in the history of medicine. The 21st century promises to reveal amazing discoveries leading to radically more effective treatments for devastating diseases.  It is no coincidence that just this year both the Nobel Prize in Medicine and the Nobel Prize in Chemistry were awarded for discoveries advancing our understanding of the genetic mechanisms essential to life.
It is fascinating to look back and see just how far we have come in the past 75 years and to realize Rutgers’ and New Jersey’s central role in some of the most significant medical discoveries of the last century. 

Before the introduction of antibiotics in the 1940s, doctors had few options for combating the bacterial infections that caused blood poisoning, strep throat, tuberculosis, and other life-threatening conditions.  Those miracle drugs, several of which were discovered at Rutgers by Professor Selman Waksman and graduate student Albert Schatz, changed the face of medicine.  They provided a potent weapon for alleviating pain and suffering.  They lengthened the human life span and improved the quality of life.

Antibiotics were the result of long years of painstaking work, beginning with the discovery of penicillin in 1929.   There were many false starts and setbacks in the search for a broad-spectrum drug that could attack a range of bacterial infections—from skin irritations to respiratory disease—without harming the human body. 

In some ways we are at a similar cusp in medical history today.  The discovery of the specific genetic causes of diseases and our increased understanding of the role of stem cells hold real promise for curing currently intractable illnesses. 

Again, it will take the hard work and commitment of some of the best scientific minds in the country, many of them right here in New Jersey, to turn that promise into reality.  Rutgers, along with its partners at UMDNJ and across the state, must again be a leading force in the pursuit of life-saving and live-changing medical advances.

There are, however, some significant differences between then and now.  The discovery of streptomycin, the first effective treatment for tuberculosis, took place in a small basement laboratory in Martin Hall on Rutgers’ Cook Campus.  The equipment was modest, staff support was minimal, and the number of researchers involved was limited to a few soil scientists.

In contrast, medical research today requires sophisticated, costly equipment, and well-stocked laboratories.  More important, it requires highly educated scientists working collaboratively – not just within the life sciences but across disciplines from chemistry to pharmacy, from biology to physics, from engineering to computer science.  

Twenty-first century research is not something that any one person or any one institution can do alone.  Instead, we need to develop centers of excellence that attract the very best scientists, clinicians, and students, and provide them with the specialized resources and highly skilled staff needed to translate new knowledge into outcomes that meet human needs.

At Rutgers, we are trying to do just that.  A little over a year ago, Rutgers dedicated a state-of-the-art Life Sciences Building that brings together in one facility a breathtaking array of educational and research programs.  A similarly collaborative facility for biomedical engineering is under construction. 

At our Susan Lehman Cullman Laboratory for Cancer Research at the School of Pharmacy teams of scientists explore strategies for preventing cancer.  Our W.M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience reaches out internationally in its quest to cure spinal cord injury and save lives.

The Cancer Institute of New Jersey is another wonderful model.  Although formally part of UMDNJ, 45 percent of its participating faculty are from Rutgers.  It draws on laboratory researchers and clinicians across disciplines and institutions.  It expands our basic understanding of cancer’s causes and cures, and it treats cancer patients with skill and compassion.  This inclusive and far-reaching approach has moved the Cancer Institute to the forefront of cancer research and earned it the designation as the only National Cancer Institute Comprehensive Care Center in New Jersey.

You might be surprised to know how many programs Rutgers and UMDNJ-Robert Wood Johnson Medical School share as we strive together to strengthen biomedical science in New Jersey.  Nearly all the New Brunswick-based graduate programs in the biomedical sciences are collaborative between Rutgers and the medical school.  For more than 20 years, the two universities have comanaged two of the state’s preeminent research institutes – the Center for Advanced Biotechnology and Medicine and the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute. 

Other joint research projects can be found at the Rutgers-based Human Genetics Institute, the New Jersey Biomaterials Center, the Northeast Structural Genomics Consortium, and the Center for Translational Research, to name just a few.  Such ventures are giving renewed hope to families living with illness, injury, and disease.  We look forward to continuing and expanding these productive partnerships.

I would like to take a minute to speak about one joint research effort in particular:  The Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey.  I do not have to tell anyone in this room how important stem cell research is to medical progress.  One of the most successful uses of stem cells today is in bone marrow transplants to treat leukemia, a disease the Motolinsky Foundation was first established to address.  Stem cell research is our best hope for so many people living with the pain of incurable disease.  It could be the long-sought remedy for the devastation of spinal cord injury, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, brain injury, diabetes, cancer, and many, many other disorders.  Given its broad-based potential, its impact on health could prove the equivalent of antibiotics for the 21st century.

I am proud that Rutgers, UMDNJ, and Robert Wood Johnson Medical School are working together to focus on discoveries in this rapidly developing field.  The late Ira Black at the medical school and Wise Young at Rutgers provided inspirational and visionary leadership at the institute’s inception.  Building on that foundation our entrepreneurial faculty, and energetic students have created exciting research initiatives focused on neurological disorders and spinal cord injury.  Now it is up to the people of New Jersey to let their representatives in Trenton know the issue is important to them. 

We are encouraged that legislation to fund a first-rate facility is moving forward and hopeful that a future bond issue will fill that building with renowned investigators and skilled clinicians.  Governor Jon Corzine, Senate President Dick Codey, Assemblyman Neil Cohen, and Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts have proved staunch allies of this potentially life-saving research. Their efforts are greatly appreciated.

Certainly public money is crucial as we work to turn our concept for a world-class Stem Cell Institute into a brick and mortar building humming with research activity.  But private support is also vital.  Just this fall, Rutgers alumnus Richard Shindell donated $3 million to endow a chair at our Keck Center, a gift that will greatly advance Dr. Wise Young’s work on stem cell therapies.  

Indeed, the increasing importance of private giving is why foundations like yours make such a difference.  They provide that extra level of support that can turn an excellent program into an extraordinary one.

I am proud to accept this recognition on behalf of Rutgers, and grateful for your vote of confidence in the university’s efforts to advance medical research at this particularly auspicious moment in history.  Let me conclude, however, by commending the efforts of the Motolinsky Foundation in providing the resources that make miracles happen. 

Thank you.