Actor and director Christopher Reeve was in Washington in late October to talk about stem cell research, a topic that has been of personal interest since an equestrian accident in 1995 left him paralyzed from the neck down. Mr. Reeve, now a prominent medical activist, joined two scientists at a news conference to mark the fifth anniversary of the publication of their pioneering stem cell research. The three men addressed the status of that research today in light of the fierce national and international ethical debate over the use of human embryonic stem cells.
Scientists believe the potential of stem cell technology which uses the remarkably versatile cells in human embryos to replace damaged body tissue - could be used to treat a variety of diseases, from Parkinson's and Alzheimers to spinal cord injuries. But the work has been controversial from the beginning, because the majority of stem cells come from human embryos discarded at fertility clinics. Some opponents are concerned that embryos are being "killed" for scientific research. In 2001, President Bush restricted federal funding to stem cells already harvested for research, slowing progress in a field that Christopher Reeve and many other experts say can't afford delays.
"I'm not a scientist, I'm a patient and a patient advocate," he said. "My concern is not only with issues of the central nervous system and paralysis, but the fate of 128 million Americans who are currently living with incurable diseases, and 54 million Americans living with disabilities. And the fact is, under this administration we have fallen seriously behind. And that's frightening."
Christopher Reeve was joined by Dr. James Thomson of the University of Madison-Wisconsin and Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, the first scientists to isolate and cultivate human embryonic stem cells. Dr. Thomson said in spite of political opposition and the lack of federal funding for the first three years of stem cell research, some headway is being made.
"I think the rate at which we are expanding is much slower than could be, if politics weren't involved," he said. "So one of the things that has happened as a result of President Bush's restrictions is that say only federal funding can be used for existing cell lines and a bottle neck was created for the distribution of these cells. So in Wisconsin we've shipped the cells to about 150 groups. And, more importantly, we've instituted training courses so people can actually learn how to grow the cells."
But Dr. John Gearhart of Johns Hopkins University said he and the researchers at Hopkins' new Institute of Cell Engineering are concerned about the safety of some cell types that are cultured in a laboratory.
"It's one thing to take a cell that you claim is a certain type and can do the functions you want but we have to pay attention to safety issues as well. As you know there's a concern about the stem cells we're working with as far as the formation of tumors," he said. "And that the location of cells - particularly in the central and nervous system - where you put them, they don't generally stay where you put them. All I can tell you is in the hundreds or thousands of animals that we've engrafted derivatives of the human cells, we haven't seen a tumor yet."
Both Dr. Thomson and Dr. Gearhart said the only things holding up progress in stem cell research are funding - and public concerns about how embryonic stem cells are harvested and used. Still, they expect that clinical trials in humans will take place within five years.
Christopher Reeve cited polls that show 68 percent of Americans support all forms of embryonic stem cell research. The actor-turned-activist warned that if the current policies are not reversed, the United States could lose its preeminence in this critical field of medical research.
"Meanwhile, overseas particularly in countries like Sweden, the U.K., Switzerland, Israel, Singapore, Australia, China, all of those countries have wrestled with this same ethical dilemma about this research and have decided that it is in the best interest of the public and go forward," he said. "And already, the U.K., Sweden and Israel have purified embryonic stem cell lines, ready for export around the world. We must reclaim our preeminence."
Christopher Reeve added that when he was first injured and looked forward to the future, he "never thought that politics would get in the way of hope."