USA Today 6/8/04

Reagan's demise can spark new assault on Alzheimer's


"I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this. We have lost so much time already." Nancy Reagan made that rare public plea last month in support of greater federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

These tiny cells hold the gigantic potential to cure devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer's, which ravaged former president Ronald Reagan for 10 years until his death Saturday. Scientists believe stem cells also hold promise in finding treatments for Parkinson's, diabetes and other diseases.

But that promise will not be realized if abortion politics prolongs the suffering of millions who share Reagan's plight.
By restricting federal aid, President Bush has limited the number of stem-cell colonies available for study. Human embryos have to be destroyed to harvest the cells, and Bush, like anti-abortion groups, argues that this is a sacrifice of human life.

Bush defended his action again Monday, but the former first lady's impassioned appeal may be breaking down resistance to expanded federal research. Last Friday, 58 U.S. senators, including several opponents of abortion rights, sent a letter to Bush urging him to loosen his policy. They join 206 members of the House of Representatives who wrote a similar letter in late April.

On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush said about 60 existing stem-cell colonies would be adequate. But only 19 such lines are now available, according to the National Institutes of Health, and many researchers are banned from working with new cell colonies.

As a result of the scarce supply, the USA risks falling behind in research if top biologists move overseas where more lines are available. The world's first embryonic stem-cell bank opened in Britain last month. Significant research also is underway in Japan, Israel, Singapore, South Korea and Australia.

Since private research is not restricted in the USA, some states and universities are funding research themselves. Examples:
States. In May, New Jersey established the first state-sponsored research facility with $6.5 million. It hopes to raise another $50 million with help from private donors. California has an initiative on the November ballot that calls for spending $3 billion during the next 10 years to fund research.

Universities. The Harvard Stem Cell Institute opened in April with 17 new stem-cell lines and hopes to raise $100 million. Institutes also have been created at Stanford University and the University of Wisconsin.

While such efforts help offset the federal restrictions, they aren't enough, because many of the nation's best scientific minds depend on grants from Washington.

Foes of expanded federal support say killing an embryo for research is immoral.

But a solution exists that would let research flourish without the specter of creating embryos for the sole purpose of destroying them. Some 400,000 embryos developed at fertility clinics are now frozen and will likely be discarded. Federally funded scientists could work with them.
Making more stem cells available does not guarantee a cure for Alzheimer's or other crippling diseases any time soon. The research is in its infancy, having started only in 1998. While the promise is real, no human therapies have been developed.

Still, no one can predict when a breakthrough might occur. Freeing researchers from needless restrictions that stymie progress would be a fitting way to remember and honor Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately, Bush reaffirms strict limits on stem-cell study.


Paid for by YES on 71: Coalition for Stem Cell Research and Cures, #1260661
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