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Reagan's Death May Sway Stem Cell Debate

Former First Lady's Support for Research Could Help Tip Senate Debate
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WebMD Health News

June 8, 2004 -- Backers of embryonic stem cell research are increasing pressure to expand funding for the controversial research technique as Capitol Hill prepares for the funeral of former President Ronald Reagan on Friday.

Reagan died Saturday at 93 after struggling with Alzheimer's disease for more than a decade. The passing of a president revered by Republicans -- coupled with his wife's outspoken support of science using stem cells -- appears to have spurred efforts to enhance federal support for the research.

The U.S. Senate has deadlocked since last year over whether to ban all cloning or to allow cloning only to help expand the numbers of embryonic stem cells. These cells have the ability to grow into almost any human tissue.

The potential that these cells have has sparked theories that they may be coaxed into growing into tissues that repair damage due to diabetes, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's, and other illnesses.

But the research remains highly controversial because obtaining and growing these cells for research purposes requires the destruction of a potentially viable human embryo -- one that is one week or so old, a stage of development that has only a few dozen cells.

Some pro-life lawmakers have called for legislation that would amount to a ban on the studies.

Now with the nation's attention focused on the life and decline of the former president, Republican and Democratic supporters of stem cell research predict that they may have enough support to pass their bill.

"I can't think of a way in which we could honor President Reagan more than that," says Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.).

Daschle and 57 other senators, including several pro-life Republicans, sent a letter to President Bush Friday urging him to reconsider an August 2001 decision limiting federal funding to 78 stem cell groups in existence at the time. Bush said at the time that the decision was designed to encourage the potential of the research while avoiding the destruction of human embryos to obtain these cells.

Two years later, scientists are expressing disappointment with the 78 stem cell lines, saying that less than 20 groups have proved useful for experiments. They complain that research is being slowed because the available stem cell groups lack the genetic diversity required for wide-ranging studies.

A Forceful First Lady

The 58 senators have a valuable ally in Nancy Reagan, the former first lady, who has made impassioned pleas for the research because of its potential to understand or cure degenerative illnesses like Alzheimer's disease.

Nancy Reagan last spoke on the issue publicly in May, when she told an audience in Beverly Hills, Calif., that she is "determined" to help save other families from suffering.

"I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this," she said.

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