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Cell diversion

Science | Hype over embryonic stem cells is driving funding from more promising, but politically incorrect, research

Issue: "2004 Election: Countdown," Oct. 23, 2004

Actor Christopher Reeve inspired the disabled to dream of recovery where once they only hoped to cope. Nine years after a crippling horseback riding accident, the Superman star regained some breathing, moving, and sensing abilities through intense therapy. If he never walked again, he did become a moving testimony-prior to his cardiac arrest and death on Oct. 10-for spinal-cord-injury research, increasingly dominated by a high-profile campaign advocating the healing power of embryonic stem cells.

Pushing the cause has clouded not only a presidential point of difference but also the real potential for stem cells. Sen. John Kerry appealed to voters' compassion for Mr. Reeve as a way to argue for expanded federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research. "Chris Reeve exercises every single day to keep those muscles alive for the day when he believes he can walk again-and I want him to walk again," Mr. Kerry said in the Oct. 8 presidential debate. Mr. Reeve died two days later after suffering a heart attack at his New York home during treatment for an infected bedsore wound. At 52, the actor and activist is survived by his wife, Dana, and a 12-year-old son, along with two adult children from a previous relationship.

Pro-life groups were careful not to undermine the actor's courage, while at the same time taking issue with his cause. "We mourn the passing of the great entertainer," read a statement from Austin Ruse, president of Culture of Life Foundation, but "we regret that his passing, like that of Ronald Reagan, will provide the opportunity for some to make the false case for embryo-destructive research."

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Sympathy for Mr. Reeve, along with other quadri- and paraplegics, has become a selling point to distort the legitimate gains in stem-cell research in the United States. By focusing on the unproven potential of embryonic stem cells, pop-medicine campaigns have taken attention and funding away from areas of stem-cell research that are closest to cures.

Contrary to statements by Mr. Kerry and his celebrity backers, such as Michael J. Fox, the Bush administration did not ban stem-cell research. In 2001, President Bush allowed the federal government to fund research on stem cells already derived from unused in-vitro fertilization embryos. What Mr. Bush prohibited was government funding to create more lines, which the president acknowledged would destroy more embryos.

Doctors are well on their way to treating immune-deficient diseases with adult stem-cell transplants, where the stem cells become factories for creating new, healthy cells. Post-birth, or adult, stem cells can perform only specific tasks, while embryonic stem cells have the potential to produce almost all the tissue needed for a human body. The extraction process, however, destroys embryos.

According to the National Institutes of Health stem-cell registry, just over 20 stem-cell lines are currently available for federally funded research. Those lines are important for research, said University of Kansas researcher Kathy Mitchell, but doctors do not want to treat humans with them because they were grown with nourishment from mouse cells. Scientists dependent on federal funding also want a more diverse selection of genetic lines for research.

Politicians from both parties want to increase the embryonic stem cells available for federally funded research. But the bipartisan efforts stop short of allowing what Mr. Reeve demanded: cloning human embryos for research and treatment.

Mr. Kerry has tried to steer clear of the cloning controversy. When he lauded Mr. Reeve in the Oct. 8 debate, Mr. Kerry only expressed support for research on embryos from in-vitro fertilization clinics. Mr. Kerry's official plan is less specific. His campaign website states that he would allow "doctors and scientists to explore their full potential with the appropriate ethical oversight."

Others, too, have discovered ways to promote cloning without seeming to before mass audiences. Those who want to clone embryos for research often use terms like "therapeutic cloning" or the scientific "somatic cell nuclear transfer." Ron Reagan Jr. did not use the word "cloning" in his speech at the Democratic National Convention, but that was exactly what he was advocating as he described a potential treatment for Parkinson's disease.

In 2002, Mr. Reeve testified before Congress in support of such cloning. He argued that embryonic stem cells' ability to make almost any kind of tissue made them more promising than adult stem cells. "If the government forces scientists to attempt to make adult stem cells behave like embryonic stem cells, they might waste five years or more and fail," Mr. Reeve told a Senate committee.

But two years later, stem-cell researchers say their biggest challenge is making embryonic cells behave like adult cells. In a study on Parkinson's disease much like the one which Mr. Reagan described and Mr. Fox has lobbied for, embryonic stem cells hurt patients because-unlike adult stem cells-they don't know when to stop multiplying.

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