June 13, 2004
There's a better way of honoring Ronald Reagan than placing flowers or jelly beans at his casket. Like millions of Americans, he suffered from Alzheimer's, one of a long list of diseases that may one day be treated or cured using stem cells.
Recently, Nancy Reagan pleaded for the cause of stem cell research. "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him," she said. "I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."
Yet this research continues to be stymied by a ban decreed by President Bush, which effectively prevents research using embryos, except for a handful of lines made before August 2001. These lines are potentially contaminated with animal pathogens. Some are difficult to grow; others show abnormalities.
Bush and others oppose the use of stem cells because they come from leftover embryos created for in vitro fertilization. It comes down to whether a microscopic ball of cells, smaller than a grain of sand, warrants the same rights as a heart patient or a diabetic child who might be spared a lifetime of suffering.
The promise of stem cells is not science fiction. Nerve cells derived from embryonic stem cells have reversed the equivalent of multiple sclerosis in mice and restored limb function to partially paralyzed rats; insulin-secreting cells have normalized blood sugar levels in diabetic mice. Such therapies are likely to extend to AIDS, cancer, Parkinsons and other diseases. Stem cells may also be used to create more complex tissues such as skin, blood vessels, and even whole organs such as kidneys and hearts.
Some wish adult stem cells could do the same. But evidence suggests their versatility is limited. More work is needed on these cells, but to impede embryonic stem cell work in the meantime risks unconscionable delay. We need to comprehend that heartening developments and countless cures are attainable with stem cells.
Many scientific hurdles remain. But it is important to ensure that the tremendous benefits of stem cells may one day become available to the millions who so desperately need them. Which brings us back to Reagan. Instead of sending flowers, send a letter to your congressman supporting stem cell research. Do it for the Gipper.
Lanza is medical director at Advanced Cell Technology and adjunct professor
at Wake Forest University School of Medicine.
Copyright © 2004, Daily News, L.P.