During a March 9 press conference here at The Elie Katz Umbilical Cord Blood Program facility, Archbishop John J. Myers and Father Joseph Kukura, president of the Princeton-based Catholic HealthCare Partnership of New Jersey (CHCPNJ), reported on the progress of an alliance among 10 Garden State Catholic hospitals that provide obstetrical services.
The statewide stem-cell initiative, which is being steered by Father Kukura, was launched in May 2006 (see The Catholic Advocate, June 21 and 7, 2006). The facility here will serve as a station to collect biological material from hospitals, which is needed for ongoing adult stemcell research.
"I am here to say that the first stage of the initiative has been accomplished. Our nine-month initiative was to get 10 Catholic hospitals involved (with adult stem-cell research). The Catholic Church is in favor of stem-cell research, but only one kind (embryonic) is problematic to our moral tradition," Father Kukura explained.
Archbishop Myers deems the initiative "a model in the state and throughout the country" for adult stem-cell research. Father Kukura was invited to Rome by the Holy Father to address the calling to "provide innovative ways to preserve human life. I applaud the efforts of the hospitals, staff and patients for understanding the importance of cord and placenta blood donation, and for the increasingly important and productive role in the field of stem cell research," the archbishop said.
"Efforts like this partnership among the Catholic hospitals in New Jersey, Community Blood Services and the Coriell Institute for Medical Research will truly advance the goal of finding cures for diseases without sacrificing human life," Archbishop Myers said. Following the press conference, the archbishop was given a tour of The Elie Katz Umbilical Cord Blood Program facility.
Dr. Dennis M. Todd, president and chief executive officer of Community Blood Services, shared the progress that the organization has made since partnering with Catholic hospitals. "We have collected 750 units of cord blood through Catholic hospitals in New Jersey," Todd said. "One hundred and eighty of those units have qualified for transplant. We ship all over the world and overnight to treatment centers. These cells are used to treat people with lymphomas, immune deficiencies and other disorders. Out of the 41 units we have transferred, 30 have been from Catholic hospitals in this state." Out of those that received the stem-cell treatment, 68 percent are now in good health, including a 60-year-old woman who was diagnosed with leukemia, he said.
The Elie Katz Umbilical Cord Blood Program facility is one of the first centers in the nation to use procedures that have just been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for private and public stem-cell storage. Research aimed at better ways to store units and how to get the word out to more donors, including the minority population, is an important component of the initiative, according to Todd.
Another essential component in advancing stem-cell research is the political will of the state legislature. Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-Union) has been a supporter of adult stem-cell research since its inception and was a key figure in building the alliance between government officials and Catholic hospitals.
"Developments in stem cells are changing every hour. This is the pathway to cures and healing in the future. There has been national interest in advocacy since our press conference last year," Cohen declared.
Senator Loretta Weinberg (DBergen) is also a supporter of the adult stem-cell research alliance. "As a widow of a cancer victim, a mother and a grandmother, I look forward to a time for other families to find other cures," Weinberg said.
Assemblywoman Charlotte Vandervalk (R-Bergen) believes educating pregnant women is key in advancing adult stem-cell research. "With education, we can stop the wasting (of umbilical cord and placenta blood)," Vandervalk said. "I have files filled with success stories. It fills me with awe of the potential we have here. This (alliance with Catholic hospitals) is a giant leap forward and I play a small role in legislation to increase education. People need to know that it is free to donate. Every pregnant woman needs to receive education in the middle of her pregnancy to inform her decision."
The partnership of Catholic hospitals with blood collection centers is inspiring other areas of the country. "I received a call from Nebraska the other day asking me how they can do something like this," Father Kukura said.
Although adult stem-cell research has proven results, a lack of federal funding could endanger the future of using and collecting umbilical and placenta blood. Under a 2005 law, $15 million per year should be given towards funding this research from 2007-2010. However, President Bush proposes only $2 million in funding for umbilical cord research and storage.
Assemblyman Cohen calls the reduction in government funding "sad" and "extremely foolish," adding "the government needs to step up to the plate if they want to be a part of a medical revolution."