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Ron Reagan Jr. Stokes Stem Cell Debate

Some Stem Cell Scientists Say He Oversold the Promise of Cures
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WebMD Health News

July 28, 2004 -- The son of the Republican Party's most revered modern president set the stage at the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night to promote the promise of embryonic stem cell research.

A day later, some leading stem cell scientists say that the speech's enthusiastic endorsement may have oversold the controversial research's hope of finding disease cures any time soon.

Ron Reagan Jr., son of the late former Republican President Ronald Reagan, addressed the enthusiastic Democratic crowd in Boston, criticizing stem cell research opponents for standing in the way of scientific progress in favor of political ideology.

Reagan did not mention in his prime-time speech his father's recent death at age 93 from Alzheimer's disease or the vocal support of his mother, former first lady Nancy Reagan, for stem cell studies.

But he did invoke the series of diseases that many researchers say could be mitigated or cured by harnessing stem cells' ability to differentiate into nearly any kind of human tissue, including Parkinson's disease, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and spinal cord injuries.

Reagan described a process involving so-called 'therapeutic cloning,' where a nucleus from a patient's skin cell is placed inside an egg cell and coaxed to begin dividing. The resulting embryo could then yield stem cells, potentially offering a supply of new tissue with DNA identical to the patient's.

"In other words, you're cured," he said.

"How would you like to have your own personal biological repair kit waiting for you at the hospital?" Reagan asked the audience. "Now it may be in our power to put an end to this suffering. We need only try," he said.

Divisive Debate

Reagan was stepping into a debate that has gripped scientists, lawmakers, and presidents for years: What are the ethical limits to embryonic stem cell research, which can require the destruction of an early human embryo, and how are those limits balanced with their potential to cure dreaded diseases?

The Bush campaign responded to the speech by questioning the ethics of using embryos to eventually repair human tissue. "What are these embryos that you're creating to make your spare parts? Are they life or are they not?" says Megan Hauck, deputy policy director for Bush/Cheney 2004, in an interview.

President Bush had his say in August 2001, when he issued an executive order limiting federally funded research to some 74 stem cell lines that were already in existence at the time. The decision pleased many pro-life groups but worried scientists, who now point out that less than 20 of the lines are of use for studies and that Bush's decision slowed research progress.

The National Institutes of Health has since spent upwards of $60 million on the research, according to the agency.

The decision touched off a debate which has since deadlocked Capitol Hill. A majority of U.S. senators, including notable pro-life lawmakers such as Sens. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Trent Lott (R-Miss.) support expanding research. But not enough lawmakers have joined the effort yet to repeal Bush's policy.

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