Wednesday, January 21, 2004

Paralyzed actor lauds 'critical' stem-cell research in Israel

Paralyzed actor lauds 'critical' stem-cell research in Israel
By STEPHANIE MURPHY, Daily News Business and Real Estate Writer
Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2004

Before science catches up with a cure for paralyzed equestrians, research breakthroughs are more likely in diabetes and Parkinson's Disease, actor Christopher Reeve said Sunday at The Four Seasons Resort.

Before Reeve or anyone else reaps such benefits, he said, opponents of embryonic stem-cell research will have to reconcile their concerns with what he witnessed last year in the treatment of spinal-cord injuries in Israel: "I saw very advanced work, work that is absolutely critical, going on in Israel."

Sweden, the United Kingdom and Singapore are following suit, Reeve said, "But Israel has a history of taking on complex issues. Keep in mind that the first and foremost purpose of applied science is to relieve human suffering. Perhaps we've lost sight of that here at home."

He addressed the gap in politics in the United States and Israel during a weekend symposium presented by the American Friends of Hebrew University. The star of Superman films, paralyzed from the neck down since a 1995 horseback-riding accident, Reeve was Saturday's keynote speaker. He held a press conference Sunday and participated in a panel, "Frontiers in Brain Research."

Reeve said the Bush administration and leaders in Israel "come to a very different conclusion" on ethics and morality. He referred to President Bush's order two years ago to limit federal money for embryonic stem-cell research to self-sustaining colonies of cells already extracted from human embryos. Bush said no new embryos could be taken for federally financed research.

Most cells depend on like-cells for regeneration. Medical researchers are especially focused on embryonic stem cells because they can evolve into cells of other types.

"That means embryonic stem cells can be put elsewhere in the body and given a new job," Reeve said.

"As much as I am an advocate for scientific freedom of inquiry, derived from any source, it's not about whether it will help me . . . But it may be the answer for people with Parkinson's and most likely diabetes. It may help me, or it may not."

Reeve said Hebrew University's progress has been dramatic in neural computation, or study of the brain. A scientist there who is working on spinal-cord regeneration could be ready for clinical trials within two years, he said.

There are studies indicating that the embryonic stem-cell research could eventually yield treatments for Alzheimer's, heart disease, cancer and injuries such as Reeve's. Several private groups, including the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, support the research elsewhere.

In The New York Times in March, lobbyist Michael Manganiello of the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research, said, "This research holds tremendous promise for medical breakthroughs for things like spinal cord injury and diabetes."

Many opponents say stem-cell research is immoral because human embryos are destroyed after cell extraction. Reeve said more than one-third of the fertilized embryos are "excess. If they are not frozen to make a sibling, they are discarded as medical waste. Why would it be immoral to save some of them from the garbage to use the cells for research?"

He said those who would criminalize the harvesting of cells also would block the importation of the technology: "So I could go to Israel and be treated, come back to New York and be arrested. It's absurd."

In 1996, philanthropist Lois Pope made a $10 million grant to the Miami Project to Cure Paralysis ?? a gift that was matched by the state of Florida. Pope had met Reeve at a local charity event before his accident.

Reeve's foundation, based in Springfield, N.J., has spawned a fund-raising consortium which gives research grants twice a year and has awarded $47 million to date, he said.

The foundation also has a resource center for the newly injured ?? "for people who experience what I experienced right after I was injured ?? total bewildering fear and a sense that life will never be normal again." The group has a new guide "for anyone, whether injured two days or 20 years." At his Web site are links to specialists: paralysis.org.

The group also has a quality-of-life grants program for assisted-living needs, transportation, recreation, job opportunities and accessibility. There are branches in New Jersey, Westchester County, N.Y., and Washington, D.C.

Reeve's paralysis resource center receives federal money each year from the Centers for Disease Control. Despite other budget cuts, support is in place, he said, "and we hope it will be continuing."

His visit to Israel was educational, not for treatment, because work there is focused on those with acute paralysis, within 14 days of injury, "and I missed that by a long shot."

Life is not "normal," he said, but it's "more than tolerable." Reeve and his family cope with their circumstances in a house filled with "a lot of laughter and joy."

He guards his health, so as not to "go backward. But as soon as I'm invited to a clinical trial that's safe, I'd go."