Nancy Reagan presses the fight
Former first lady to make most public endorsement of stem cell research
By Laura Mecoy
BEVERLY HILLS - It's as if the coach's wife showed up for the opposing team's pep rally.
The wife of former President Reagan is set to be the star attraction at tonight's $2 million fund-raiser to pay for embryonic stem cell research - an emerging science opposed by her husband's allies in the anti-abortion movement and the GOP.
It will be Nancy Reagan's most public endorsement of the controversial studies scientists say hold the best hope of curing myriad f ailments, including Alzheimer's, the disease ravaging her husband.
By spurning opponents' objections to research using embryos, the former first lady has become a potent weapon in a burgeoning challenge to President Bush's 2001 limits on federal funding for stem cell studies.
"She's been very reluctant to get in the public eye," said Doug Wick, a Reagan family friend who enlisted her help on the issue. "She knows what that means. But she's so genuinely committed to stem cell research."
The "Gala Tribute to Nancy Reagan" tonight is part of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's $20 million fund-raising drive for studies of these "master cells" that can transform into any cell in the human body.
The science is in its infancy. But other disease advocacy groups and patients' families have given millions to universities and stem cell programs in the hope the research can lead to cures for spinal-cord injuries, lupus, Parkinson's and other illnesses.
More than 200 House members signed a letter asking Bush to reverse his stem cell funding limits, and the president's ruling promises to become a contentious issue in November's election.
Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry vowed to repeal it because "100 million Americans ... could eventually benefit" from stem cell research.
In California - the first state to sanction stem cell studies - patients, their families and scientists hope to use state dollars to bypass the president's restrictions if, as expected, their $3 billion, 30-year stem cell bond measure gets on the November ballot.
"The California initiative could make an amazing difference because the scientists and the institutions in the state are ... among the best in the world," said Evan Snyder, a leading stem cell researcher.
Snyder moved from Harvard University to San Diego's Burnham Institute in 2002, shortly after California enacted laws to promote and regulate the research. "The law made California a real safe haven for stem cell research," Snyder said.
California has been a leader in the field, with the most biotechnology firms, outstanding researchers and universities starting to raise millions to pay for stem cell studies.
New Jersey followed California's lead by adopting a similar stem cell law in January. Its governor then proposed a $60 million public-private stem cell research partnership.
Harvard launched a $100 million fund-raising drive last month, and one of its top researchers recently developed 17 stem cell lines with private contributions. Privately funded research is under way in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states as well.
Researchers first isolated and cultivated human embryonic stem cells in 1998. They derive the cells from extra embryos created for in-vitro fertilization that would otherwise be discarded.
But abortion foes, many of whom oppose in-vitro fertilization, say the research violates the sanctity of life.
"We didn't like the idea of the Germans using Jews for experiments during World War II," said Camille Giglio, California Right to Life co-founder and director. "Why is it now all right to use embryos?"
With Bush's election in 2000, critics of stem cell research gained a supporter in the White House to make the decision about funding this research.
Supporters of stem cell research, including many in California, flooded Capitol Hill and the White House with calls and letters.
Among them were two influential Southern California couples chairing tonight's fund-raiser: Wick, the Reagan family friend, his wife, Lucy Fisher, and Jerry and Janet Zucker.
Wick and Fisher have a 13-year-old daughter, Tessa, who was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes in 1999. The Zuckers' daughter, Kate, received the same diagnosis six months later.
"Driving home that night from the doctor's office, Jerry and I promised Kate that we were going to do everything in our power to cure this so she wouldn't have to face it all of her life," Janet Zucker recalled.
The two couples knew one another from working in the movie industry. Wick is the Academy Award-winning producer of "Gladiator," and Zucker directed "Ghost." Their wives also are producers.
They created CuresNow, a lobbying and educational organization for stem cell research, and enlisted Nancy Reagan's help.
Nancy Reagan, 82, declined to be interviewed. But Wick said she was their secret weapon.
"The notion that Nancy Reagan, who has such great credibility, was supporting this issue was quite startling to people," he said.
Giglio said the former first lady "undermined an awful lot of things pro-life people have tried to do."
Nancy Reagan worked behind the scenes to help block legislation to criminalize therapeutic cloning, a process that could avoid the rejection problems plaguing today's transplant programs.
The measure was critical for CuresNow founders. Rejection of new insulin-producing cells is the biggest hurdle in experimental transplants that have cured about half of diabetic subjects.
Nancy Reagan's quiet persuasion also helped win over some leading abortion foes such as conservative Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch.
But she had limited success with Bush. The president, in a nationally televised address Aug. 9, 2001, said she'd written him about her husband's struggle with Alzheimer's. But he had to encourage respect for life.
So he sought to strike a compromise. He limited federal money to research on stem cells that had been harvested. There, he said, the "life and death decision has already been made."
Of the 78 stem cell lines eventually qualifying for federal funding, only 19 have been made available to researchers because of difficulties in developing them. Four more might be available soon. But all the lines were developed atop mouse feeder cells, further limiting their use in human treatments.
"This ruling by the president has essentially limited, if not stopped ... stem cell research in most places in the country," Nobel laureate Paul Berg said.
Bush held out hope for great scientific progress with adult stem cells, which don't require an embryo's destruction.
But scientists say the adult cells don't have the ability to turn into as wide a range of cells as embryonic stem cells do.
"We don't know enough about adult, embryonic or germ stem cells to know if we should go down one road or another," said Daniel Perry, president of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research. "We should go down all the roads ... to find cures as soon as possible."
In Sacramento, the president's ruling and congressional attempts to outlaw therapeutic cloning spurred state Sen. Debra Ortiz, D-Sacramento, to action.
She wrote bills promoting and regulating stem cell research that were signed into law in 2002.
She then wrote a bill for a bond measure to pay for the research. The bill never made it out of committee because of the state's budget crunch.
Stem cell researchers encouraged her to enlist the CuresNow founders in launching a signature-gathering campaign to put the bond on the ballot.
"I flew to L.A. and into a room where there were 40 people I didn't know," Ortiz said. "They took it from there."
The CuresNow founders linked with Robert Klein, a Palo Alto parent of a diabetic child, who had an expertise in bond measures.
The stem cell measure would cost taxpayers an estimated $6 billion over 30 years. But Klein designed it to pay for itself in the first five years to give the state's economy time to recover.
The bond's promoters say it could pay for itself by lowering health care costs and generating tax revenues from economic development and royalties on patents, if the research results in treatments.
Abortion foes, who are starting to organize against the measure, contend the bond offers pie-in-the-sky promises.
"The scientists and people who have an eye on this huge fund of money are mistreating naive people who really believe their rhetoric that a cure is just around the corner," said Carol Hogan, California Catholic Conference spokeswoman.
She said the other side has the advantage in the campaign because it has more money, and it can use sick children and relatives of those suffering from serious illnesses to appeal to voters.
At tonight's fund-raiser, one of the most prominent Parkinson's disease patients, actor Michael J. Fox, will present Nancy Reagan with an award.
She is expected to accept it with her first public comments on the research that has put her at odds with her husband's allies.
Her friends at CuresNow are hoping she eventually will speak in support of the bond measure.
But they know it would be an unprecedented leap back into politics for a former first lady who has limited her public role since leaving the White House.
"I don't know if she will get involved," Wick said. "I think it's one step at a time."