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Jewish World Review Oct. 30, 2002 / 24 Mar-Cheshvan, 5763

Julia Gorin

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Blinded by their Pain | In continuing her lobbying efforts to reverse the Bush policy on limited government funding for embryonic stem cell research, Former First Lady Nancy Reagan joins ranks with the heedless. Namely with actor Christopher Reeve, who believes that the past 18 months of stem cell research--using exclusively embryonic stem cells and specifically government-funded embryonic stem cells but not the government-funded embryonic stem cells allotted by President Bush--would have been perfected, made available to him and had him horseback riding by now. Which is why he blames George W. Bush that he isn't walking today.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan's wife holds the president accountable for her husband's ongoing condition--although more tactfully this year than last--demonstrating that without a cognizant Ronnie by her side her moral compass falters.

"A lot of time is being wasted," Mrs. Reagan related to the New York Times recently. "A lot of people who could be helped are not being helped."

It's entirely lost on her that, in the best-case scenario, Reagan would have handled the stem cell controversy exactly as Bush did--and conservatives have said as much.

There is no law against private funding for embryonic stem cell research. And yet PPL Therapeutics, the British company that broke ground when it created Dolly the sheep, shut down its stem cell research program after failing to find a buyer, and will now focus on what it calls "more profitable markets" like protein treatments for lung disease and cystic fibrosis. Additionally, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson writes, "With the door now open to embryonic-stem-cell research, we need more scientists to walk into the laboratory and conduct the essential research in this new field….There are four new research grants underway, and 20 existing laboratories have had their work extended to include human embryonic stem cell research….[The National Institutes of Health are] aggressively work[ing] with the scientific community to engage more researchers in this field, and we encourage the private-sector owners of the [already existing] stem-cell lines to do the same."

Why the need for all the coaxing? Could it be because, rather than curing Parkinson's sufferers, fetal tissue, for example, simply added wild gesticulation to their roster of symptoms? Or perhaps because stem cells extracted from embryos are so malleable that when a Parkinson's patient in China underwent neurosurgery to implant them, her brain grew human bone, hair and skin?

Does Nancy think Ronnie should have a Siamese twin in his head to keep him company?

Ah, but apparently it's the magic touch of government subsidy that would do the trick, according to Nancy--a position which, if Ronnie were lucid, wouldn't make him proud.

Within two months of Bush's conscientious compromise to the stem cell dilemma last year--in which he limited government funding to the 60 existing cell lines (actually there are 78)--his moral caution was vindicated when adult stem cells were found to be more versatile than previously thought.

It is a repetitive fact of life that doing the right thing is divinely rewarded. In this case, the new findings rendered the stem cell controversy moot for a time, while exposing the imprudent proponents of create-and-kill research as unscrupulous. Science's steamrollers needed only to step back a moment--and delve into what was already available for harvesting--to see that the ethical way can prove to be the most expedient way too. All it required was a small initial investment of time and conscience.

Over the past 18 months, promising reports steadily streamed in as research progressed using the avenue that does not rely on discarding embryos or discarded fetuses until finally, last June, the most flexible adult-derived stem cell was discovered in bone marrow, capable of transforming into just about any of the body's specialized cells. Such findings generally go ignored by the zealous advocates of embryonic stem cell research and their like-minded media outlets.

Meanwhile, 20 years of research on the intractable and more difficult-to-grow embryonic stem cells, which relies on creating life in order to destroy it, has yet to cure a single mouse of disease--all the while causing tumors and carrying a high risk of transplant rejection.

To some, embryo-based research falling flat or even going awry is no accident, while to others it simply calls for more research--and more embryos. The science-above-all argument is that in research all avenues must be pursued; one cannot pick and choose among them--regardless of whether the most promising of those avenues is capable of producing the desired results single-handedly.

But if scientific research means exploring all avenues, why aren't we experimenting on prison inmates and lunatics? If advancement is the priority, why not take an example from the Germans and Japanese, especially since our research is for creating cures as opposed to plagues?

Naturally prisoners--and most lunatics--would never consent to this. And their advocates would defend their rights. Put simply, it isn't a viable or legitimate avenue for scientific research. So who made the farming of embryos for disposal a viable avenue? Conveniently enough, embryos can't give or withhold consent, and their rights advocates are dismissed as fanatics.

In fact, even the hint of disapproval or advisement against embryonic stem cell research by the administration elicits a sharp rebuke from its advocates, as happened when Ari Fleischer commented on California's new law which explicitly encourages embryonic stem cell research and makes provisions for the donation and subsequent destruction of unused embryos: "The president thinks that all policies--state or federal--need to promote a culture that respects life and, in that, he does differ from what California and the governor there have done." It was to this comment that Mrs. Reagan was reacting when she went public against the Bush policy again.

Reeve, meanwhile, accuses Bush of caving in to the influence of the Catholic Church on the issue, and has gone so far as to allege a "severe violation of the separation of church and state." It is apparently inconceivable to Reeve that a man might have a set of his own moral convictions to answer to.

In two separate experiments, one involving embryonic stem cells and the other adult stem cells, both cell types increased insulin production in diabetic mice. However, the mice treated with adult stem cells generated more insulin and ultimately lived while the embryonic cell-treated mice died.

So why the collective fixation on the more obstacle-riddled and less promising path? Why the deviation from the usual scientific protocols of collecting convincing and reproducible evidence from animal models before experimenting with human beings? The religious right is often accused of politicizing science and stem cell science in particular. It is criticized for trying to avoid crossing an ethical divide, ostensibly at science's expense. Yet if adult stem cell research is outpacing embryonic without crossing an ethical divide, the question to ask is why do proponents of the former so lust to cross it?

Adult stem cells, which abound in umbilical cords, placentas, fat, cadaver brains, bone marrow and in spleen, pancreatic and other organ tissues, have repaired damage from heart attacks, strokes, Parkinson's disease and muscular dystrophy and have been used successfully to treat cancer, lupus, juvenile diabetes, immune disorders, rheumatoid arthritis and blindness. In contrast, scientists admit embryonic stem cell research is still at least 10 years away from human trials.

In Israel last year, a girl's own white blood cells implanted into her spine to treat paraplegia resulted in regained bladder control and limb mobility that stopped just short of the ability to walk--precisely the hoped for benefits of embryonic stem cell therapy, but years down the line.

And yet Christopher Reeve speaks of being overdue to walk again. Why has he latched on to the less promising but more controversial route? An outspoken Hollywood liberal, Reeve may have decided to view his glass as half full and may have found use for his incapacitated state, if only subconsciously, to further a prominent political agenda.

But a craven agenda is not likely what is driving Mrs. Reagan. What is more likely is that she isn't reading about the less hyped breakthroughs in adult stem cell technology: She is 81 years old, rarely leaves the house, doesn't accept visitors, her husband has ceased to recognize her, and she admits to being very, very lonely.

While Mr. Reeve should get off his high horse (no pun intended), legislators in danger of falling victim to Mrs. Reagan's persuasive prodding on the subject should take the following advice: Just say no.

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JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.

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© 2002, Julia Gorin