Ben Bova: Scientific research can lead to incredible benefits

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I’ve been following the debate over Jackson Laboratory with more than a little interest.

Briefly, Jackson is one of the world’s largest producers of genetically altered mice for use in research facilities. The company, which was founded in Bar Harbor, Maine, in 1929, wants to build a genetics research lab near the community of Ave Maria. This could become the nucleus of a biomedical research park, if other firms and/or schools are attracted there.

Collier Country commissioners are mulling over the wisdom of spending $130 million to finance construction of one or more buildings for Jackson to use. Commissioner Fred Coyle is in favor of it, estimating it will cost the county’s taxpayers about $60 per year per family over 15 to 20 years. The state of Florida may also contribute taxpayer money to the project.

The move is opposed by Arthrex Inc., a Naples-based manufacturer of orthopedic surgical supplies. Arthrex has indicated that if Jackson comes into Collier County, they might move away. County politics is boiling over this issue. Coyle believes that other research institutions, universities, hospitals and even charter schools will be attracted to the biomedical research park — if it is built. Others remain skeptical.

My interest, of course, centers on the possibility that Collier may have a chance to diversify its economic base. For decades, Southwest Florida has been a sort of banana republic, its economy almost totally dependent on one product: tourism.

Tourists fuel our economy. Many of them choose to retire here and become permanent, or at least semi-permanent, residents. They power the area’s construction, restaurant, entertainment, banking and investment industries. When tourists flock to our area, the economy booms. When they don’t, the region goes into an economic tailspin.

A first-rate biomedical research facility could become the kernel from which Southwest Florida’s economy diversifies enough to protect us from the pendulum swings of the tourist industry.

These are exciting times for biomedical research. Decoding the human genome is leading to new possibilities, and foremost among them is the promise of stem-cell research. I admit that I’m a cockeyed optimist when it comes to scientific research. I believe our future can be much brighter than our past. But there are others who have a considerably gloomier view.

As my colleague Brent Batten pointed out in a recent column, the New York Times has complained that in the 10 years since the human genome was deciphered, “geneticists are almost back to square one in knowing where to look for the roots of common disease.”

This, from the newspaper that opined in 1920 that rockets couldn’t work in space.

When rocket pioneer Robert Goddard published a research paper about the possibilities of using rockets to reach the moon, the Times said that rockets can’t work in the vacuum of space because of “the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react.” The editorialist didn’t know what he was talking about. To date, rockets are the only form of propulsion that works in space. The Times was wrong then and they are wrong now.

Within a week of the article criticizing stem-cell research efforts, researchers at the university of Modena in Italy announced they have used stem cells to restore the sight of 82 people whose corneas had been charred by chemical or heat burns. The corneal stem cells were harvested from the patients’ own eyes. Helping the blind to see. That’s a good start for practical applications of stem-cell research.

In the years to come, stem cells — obtained from adult body cells, not fetuses — will be used to repair hearts damaged by disease, to repair limbs lost to injuries, to grow new brain cells in patients afflicted with Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.

The day will dawn when people wonder how we got along in the “dark ages,” before stem-cell therapies were developed.

Trust the future. Scientific research can lead to incredible benefits. Will Collier County be part of the parade into a new and better world? Or will we sit on the sidelines and hope that the tourist season can carry us through another year?

Naples resident Ben Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Return,” his latest futuristic novel. Dr. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com

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