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.
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.
Overselling Stem Cells?
Today, several researchers stress that embryonic stem cell research remains in early stages, and that Reagan probably oversold the notion that it will result in cures if not Bush's limits.
"He clearly overstated the immediacy of the potential for stem cells," says Philip E. Stieg, MD, a stem cell researcher and chair of the department of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York.
Stieg points out stem cells probably hold the most promise in central nervous system problems such as Parkinson's disease and spinal cord injuries. Animal studies have shown some success in both areas. But no studies in humans using embryonic cells have yet had positive results.
Researchers have already managed to coax stem cells to differentiate into spinal cord and brain cells. But getting those cells to grow so that they form the complex nerve networks needed for brain functioning is a problem that could take a decade to solve even with unlimited funding, he suggests.
"It's not only getting the cell to grow, it's getting the cell to grow in the right direction, make the right connections. And then can we make it stay alive?" he says. Stieg argues that despite the complexity, research will not progress quickly without more access to cell lines than is allowed under the White House policy.
Paul Kincade, PhD, another stem cell researcher and president of the Federations of American Societies for Experimental Biology, also supports lifting the Bush administration's curbs on embryonic cell studies. But he too cautions against the idea that doing so will guarantee disease cures.
"Nobody can promise you a quick cure to a complex disease with any approach, including stem cells," says Kincade, who heads the immunobiology program at the Oklahoma research Foundation in Oklahoma City.
Researchers do have "a sense of urgency" about accelerating embryonic stem cell studies. Uncertainty regarding U.S. policy dissuades scientists here from doing the studies and gives other nations with more robust stem cell programs an edge, says Robert Goldstein, MD, chief science officer of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
If the White House policy changed tomorrow, Goldstein says, instead of new cures taking "six or 10 or 12 years, it will take maybe four to six to eight."
He adds that stem cell research advocates walk a fine line between extolling the potential of the research and overselling it to the point of false promise.
"We don't want to overpromise or overhype and promise something that's not going to happen next week," he says.
No one can predict exactly what effect a policy shift on stem cells might be. "We only know what will happen if you don't do research," Kincade says.