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Stem Cell Advocates Hopeful Despite Failed NJ Initiative

New Jersey voters' rejection of a November ballot initiative to borrow $450 million for stem cell research wasn't necessarily a rejection of the science itself, according to some supporters.

The ballot question, which was defeated 53 percent to 47 percent, would have authorized the state to borrow up to $45 million annually for 10 years to fund adult and embryonic stem cell research. Gov. Jon S. Corzine had backed the proposal with $150,000 of his own money.

The governor told reporters on Nov. 7 that low election turnout (about a quarter of eligible voters) and frustration over the state's budget, which is facing a deficit of about $3 billion, contributed to the initiative's failure.

“The people who had hoped the issue would fail as a matter of opposing stem cell research took it to be a sign that voters agreed with them,” said AAN health care policy analyst Dana Bacon. “People who supported the initiative cited economic issues. Given New Jersey's existing support for stem-cell research, I think the economics are pretty hard to overlook.”

Last December, state legislators approved borrowing $270 million to build the state's first stem-cell research centers in New Brunswick, Newark, and Camden.

Joseph R. Bertino, MD, interim director of the Stem Cell Institute of New Jersey, said the governor is still committed to building a stem cell facility in New Brunswick though plans for buildings in Newark and Camden may be put on hold. He said that $10 million was allocated for research for each of the last two years, and at least that much will likely be available in 2008. “The concern is that without substantial programmatic support, it may be more difficult to recruit a first-class director and investigators,” he said.

But Dr. Bertino is hopeful that the state legislators and private companies may still fund the institute. He added that there is the possibility for another referendum during next year's presidential election, which he predicts will have a larger voter turnout.