Stem cells in New Jersey

Governor's resignation casts question over funding's future; officials say work will go on

By | August 19, 2004

New Jersey Governor James McGreevey's decision earlier this month to resign effective November 15 after admitting he had an extramarital affair is calling into question the future of his recent decision to use state funds to create a new stem cell institute, but government spokespeople say the institute will move forward as planned.

The New Jersey Institute for Stem Cell Research would be a joint project of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ) and Rutgers University. The budget earmarks $6.5 million in state funds to be the included in a $10 million public/private stem cell fund, which will be used to attract top researchers from around the world. An additional $50 million in public and private funds would be used to support the institute over the following 5 years.

"Now, all of this is under question," David Beck, president of the Coriell Institute for Medical Research in Camden, NJ, told The Scientist.

"Without a political leader, I don't think the idea will continue," said Paola Leone, director of the Cell and Gene Therapy Center at UMDNJ–Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Camden, NJ.

However, a spokesperson for state Senate President Richard Codey, who will serve as acting governor until another election, said Codey was the prime sponsor of a bill authorizing the use of embryonic stem cells for research that passed in January. It was this bill that "set the gears in motion" to establish a stem cell institute using state funds, Kelley Heck told The Scientist. Codey "very much supports the stem cell institute," she said. "He thinks it's a great thing for the state of New Jersey."

"Everyone hopes, and has reason to believe, that Codey will support the ongoing work," Beck said.

Beck added that McGreevey had also "newly revitalized" the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology by appointing Sherrie Preische, a physicist, as executive director.

For McGreevey's part, he is working hard to firm up the stem cell institute during his final days in office, spokesperson Julia Johnson told The Scientist. "It's one of the primary projects the governor is going to focus on and solidify before he leaves November 15," she said.

For example, on Wednesday (August 18), he met with Ira Black and Wise Young, who would be running the institute, to discuss when they should start building, Johnson said.

Heck added that during his 30 years as a legislator, senator Codey has also been a "strong advocate" of medical research and mental health research, and has been involved in projects ranging from sudden infant death syndrome to conditions at group homes.

For instance, Heck said that Codey once "went undercover" and applied for a position as an orderly at Marlboro psychiatric hospital in Marlboro Township, using the social security number of an deceased convicted criminal. He was hired, worked the night shift, and exposed conditions that led to "serious overhauls of psychiatric institutions in the state," Heck said.

Some experts are also now questioning the future of a proposed new medical school chartered by Touro College in New York. Johnson said that medical school was never McGreevey's idea, and she believed it was simply one of the things Golan Cipel, the governor's ex-aide and supposed ex-lover, "was trying to get from the government."

According to the New Jersey Star-Ledger, the Federal Bureau of Investigation is currently investigating whether Cipel's attorneys tried to blackmail McGreevey's administration to help speed up Touro's application to build the first private medical school in New Jersey.

Also being investigated is Touro board member Charles Kushner, a prominent philanthropist who, according to the Star-Ledger, was trying to place the medical school in his hometown, Livingston, and have it named after his mother. According to Newsday, Kushner sponsored the work visa that let Cipel, an Israeli, come to the United States.

This week, Kushner pled guilty to hiring prostitutes to seduce his brother-in-law, who was preparing to testify about whether he had violated campaign finance laws.

Heck said that Codey has not been involved with Touro College and is planning to look into the issue further. Calls to Touro were not returned.

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