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Life Sciences Setting New Pulse in Camden

Greg Fridman at Drexel University Camden

Fridman in his lab


Chief of Staff Lou Bezich in the Roberts Pavillion at Cooper Hospital - Camden

Chief of Staff Lou Bezich in the Roberts Pavillion at Cooper Hospital - Camden

Cooper Hospital - Camden

There's no need to suspend disbelief when hearing that Cooper University Hospital, situated on a six square-block campus in downtown Camden, boasts one of the best-known trauma units in the state. With 12 city homicides in July alone, Cooper’s emergency room treats just about every injury imaginable. But Camden’s violent crime rate is old news to anyone who reads the dailies, and this story isn’t about Cooper’s medical prowess, which spokesperson Kelly Ripa does a satisfactory job of promoting on billboards across Philly and South Jersey.  

No, what’s remarkable in Camden these days isn’t inside the ER but rather what’s happening on the blocks that surround it: advances in biomedical research and education as futuristic and significant as any taking place in the world.

“I’ve given up talking about what I do at cocktail parties,” jokes Greg Fridman, the co-director of Drexel University’s Plasma Medicine Lab of the A.J. Drexel Plasma Institute, by way of acknowledging that the scientific process his research group invented eight years ago is staggeringly difficult to explain to lay listeners. Put as simply as possible, Fridman and approximately 90 students, alumni and interdisciplinary faculty members work to create medical devices based on their patented technology that uses cold plasma (the kind in your flat-screen, not in your blood) to enable them to better sterilize equipment, heal wounds, treat corneal infections, improve gastrointestinal diseases and oh yeah, cure cancer.

And they’re doing it out of a 10,000 square-foot lab they occupied last year on the Camden Waterfront.

“I think Drexel’s move to Camden makes sense because I’m really happy to have spacious labs here, and I’m literally a 10-minute drive to campus,” he says. “Plus, police presence is very good and the location is beautiful. We are happy.”

Being such a new arrival to Camden, Fridman and his partners have yet to formalize relationships with the local population or the city’s numerous “eds and meds” anchors, though he plans to offer lectures to the public, science fairs and field trips for local high schools and invitations to collaborate with neighboring health and research centers.

But while Fridman gets used to his surroundings, the city’s bevy of biomedical institutions frequently make news for their scientific achievements, capital expansion projects, academic enhancements, collaborations and contributions to the community. On a Wednesday in August, Gov. Chris Christie stopped in to announce his signing of the state’s Medical and Health Sciences Education Restructuring Act that among things officially encourages collaborative biotech projects between Rutgers’ Camden campus and Rowan University, which gave its first lecture last month to the inaugural class of the Cooper Medical School at Rowan University, the first med school to gain accreditation in New Jersey in 36 years.

Not only does the med school bring 50 aspiring doctors – many of them minorities – into the city, it changes the paradigm for medical curricula. The students, who were accepted based in part on their interest in serving urban populations, may be the first to be expected to spend 40 hours per year  volunteering in a non-medical capacity beyond the core coursework that has them seeing patients and performing medical duties in a city clinic, starting practically on day one.

By this time next year, these students will be able to begin taking advantage of the state mandate and possibly a higher education bond that may provide funding to support far-reaching biomed collaborations between the three public schools, as well as other accredited facilities, like the pioneering  Coriell Institute for genetic and stem-cell research, Virtua hospital, Lady of Lourdes Health System and CAMcare Health Corporation, most of which already participate in the ad hoc Camden Higher Education and Healthcare Task Force whose members meet monthly to strategize about providing for Camden’s economic vitality.

The task force helps fund a downtown special services district and compiled a report in March showing that healthcare and education employees account for 38% of the payroll earnings in Camden. This sector pays its average Camden resident a $36,600 salary, a number that reflects a total $8 million payroll increase between 2010 and 2011. With the U.S. Department of Labor Statistics projecting healthcare to remain the fastest growing sector of the economy until 2020, followed closely by education, the report notes that “Universities and healthcare institutions have long taken the lead in urban redevelopment.”

In Camden, that mission is serious and strategic. Institutions like Coriell, Cooper, Rowan and Rutgers have already looked to attract ever-higher strata of employee, funding and private investment to the city by cooperating with one another and the community to jointly construct facilities, develop courses and lab work for students, and implement outreach opportunities (think career days, hands-on internships, science fairs and mentoring and tutoring programs) for young residents. In addition, to indirectly prepare for the state’s restructuring, Rowan and Rutgers both added new bioengineering-related academic programs and graduate degrees, with Rowan founding the School for Biomedical Sciences this spring and Rutgers establishing the nationally recognized Center for Computational & Integrative Biology (CCIB) three years ago.

Joe Martin, director of the CCIB and so far the primary architect for the nascent state-sanctioned collaboration, anticipates the institutions and the board that’s forming to oversee their joint efforts will agree to construct an $80 million Life Science Research Institute – as it’s tentatively named -- that he hopes will rise in the center of downtown Camden and draw research personnel and funding from around the world and support staff and eager student interns and visitors from around the city.

“We’ll be hiring people at all levels. Our leadership has a strong commitment to city; when we recruit employees and when I was being recruited, I was told, ‘This is an urban city. A big part of what we do is outreach,’” he says of Rutgers in a refrain that’s echoed by various members of the task force about their own institutions.  

Louis Bezich, Cooper’s chief of staff, says his vision for collective growth includes closing the gap between the “meds” in Cooper’s kingdom, which is burgeoning to include a cancer center and possibly a hospital-sponsored charter school, all located on the south end of downtown, and the “eds” area three blocks to the north, where Rutgers, Rowan and Camden County College all have a presence. He views the recent creation of a central park and the construction of a Rutgers graduate dorm that contains retail space as practical and graceful conduits to additional development that can form a layout to encourage pedestrian traffic and a higher level of comfort and security for newcomers.

“The idea is to get connected and create a place where students and faculty, teachers, can live … and help stabilize a neighborhood,” he says. “With the reorganization of higher education, additional funding and a mandate to work cooperatively, that will generate new capital investment. Strategic placement of new assets becomes a tool … for redevelopment as we try to coordinate capital planning and private development that’s done in a cohesive fashion.”

Cooper began that process more than a decade ago, when it began taking its own initiative to improve the land- and street-scapes around its campus, which buttresses one of the three worst drug areas in the municipality. Now, the campus is freshly bricked and foliated, off-duty police officers patrol the area on Cooper’s dime, and some of the adjacent housing stock has renovated, thanks to initiatives between the hospital and St. Joseph’s Carpenter Society, as well as Cooper’s microgrants to employees in good standing who need help securing downpayments.

The strategy aims to lift the fortunes of all of Camden’s medical research and educational facilities, including Our Lady of Lourdes, which is spearheading a $90-million transit village on the eastern end of town to encourage employees to live close by. The problem, it seems, with operating a health sciences institution in Camden isn’t the crime, or the poverty, or the lack of a skilled work force. It is, in fact, not a problem based in reality at all. Rather, say the people charged with recruiting talent, it’s a problem of perception.

“Some people might be hesitant about Camden,” Coriell spokesperson Courtney Kronenthal, herself a California-bred PhD hired out of Boston University. “But when they get here and see the health-sciences campus and all the great work we’re doing, they realize the amazing potential for strong collaborations and great science.”

TARA NURIN is a freelance writer based in South Jersey. Send feedback here.

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO
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