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Kondracke: Christopher Reeve’s Cause Wasn’t Just Stem Cells, but Research

Christopher Reeve’s shocking death at age 52 is cause for deep mourning over the loss of a remarkable human being and for rededication to the cause he fought for: medical research across the board. [IMGCAP(1)]

Reeve, as the whole world knows, was the victim of a horrific spinal cord injury. But he did not limit his activism to finding a cure for his own affliction. He was an advocate for every disease victim — and everyone who could be cured of a disease in the future.

In the midst of this presidential campaign, his death is legitimately focusing attention on his backing of embryonic stem-cell research, but it’s getting lost that he also was a stout advocate of general increases in medical research funding.

Reeve spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 1996 not about stem cells — which were only theoretical science then — but about the revolutionary potential of 21st century bio-research.

Whenever Reeve traveled in the years immediately after his 1995 spinal injury, he risked his life. A sudden change in elevation or temperature could set off possibly fatal adverse reactions.

Yet he traveled repeatedly to Washington and elsewhere to urge expansion of medical research. I got to know him as an advocate for Parkinson’s disease research and for doubling the budget of the National Institutes of Health.

He was a Democrat, but in the late 1990s the greatest impediment to significant NIH increases was the Clinton administration.

Bill Clinton wasn’t opposed to medical research — he added funds for politically important diseases like AIDS and breast cancer and lifted the first President George Bush’s ban on fetal tissue research — but it was not a priority.

Once Clinton personally promised Reeve an increase in funding for spinal cord research, but the money never came through. Reeve seethed in private, but said nothing publicly.

It was a bipartisan group in Congress — including Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) — who pushed through a plan to double the NIH budget from $13.5 billion in1998 to $27 billion in 2003, calling for an average annual increase of 15 percent.

Clinton accepted the plan — and took credit for it — and the current President Bush promised during the 2000 campaign to complete it. And, he did. NIH’s budget is now $28 billion.

However, the Bush administration, besides limiting stem-cell research, is now also advocating severe reductions in medical research funding.

From annual 15 percent increases, Bush is recommending 2.7 percent increases — including significant and necessary new outlays to counter bio-terrorism — which represent a cut after inflation. Next year, according to widespread reports, the administration will call for only a 2 percent increase.

In Congress, the House has approved the administration’s 2.7 percent request. At Specter’s urging, the Senate Appropriations Committee has voted for a 3.9 percent increase.

Medical researchers say that the abrupt reductions in the growth of federal funding will severely inhibit their ability to expand labs, mount innovative projects or encourage young investigators.

Democratic candidate John Kerry has promised to significantly increase NIH funding as well as to undo Bush’s limits on federal support for embryonic stem-cell research. It’s no wonder that Reeve backed him before he died.

There’s no question that Democrats have hyped the immediate prospects for stem-cell research. Kerry’s running mate, Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), said after Reeve’s death that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to get up out of their wheelchair and walk again.”

That’s nonsense. Embryonic stem-cell research is still in its infancy and it will be decades before it actually fulfills its potential to cure people with diseases like Reeve’s or Michael J. Fox’s Parkinson’s or Mary Tyler Moore’s juvenile diabetes.

But the potential exists, the research is under way and it ought not be inhibited by ideology. Bush opposes aggressive embryonic stem-cell research because he opposes the destruction of 5-day-old embryos to harvest their stem cells — even when those “surplus” embryos are destined to be discarded at in vitro fertilization clinics.

The Bush campaign falsely states on its Web site that Bush “did not in any way limit or restrict” the research when in fact he declared that federal funds could not be used to conduct research on any stem cells harvested after Aug. 9, 2001.

Opponents of stem-cell research also have hyped the prospects for so-called “adult stem cells,” derived not from embryos, but a patient’s own fat, skin or blood cells.

Some dramatic progress has been made with cord blood stem cells obtained from the umbilical cords of newborns, but claims that — for instance — spinal injuries have been cured in Portugal through adult cells obtained from eye cells have not been validated by scientific review.

The director of Reeve’s spinal injury foundation, Michael Manginello, told me: “You know Chris. If there had been any credibility to these claims, he’d have been on the next plane. But the overwhelming consensus of scientists is that it’s not documented, not repeatable — in fact, is scary.”

The Bush administration is devoting $24 million this year to embryonic stem-cell research and $184 million to adult. That is letting ideology outweigh science. Both kinds of research deserve full funding.

And so does medical research in general. Since 1980, largely because of research, the average U.S. life expectancy has increased by four years and disability rates for people over 65 had declined by 25 percent.

Polls show that voters overwhelmingly prefer Kerry’s stance on stem cells to Bush’s. They also favor increases in research funding. If not to honor Reeve, then to do the public’s will, Congress should do as it did in the 1990s — increase research funding and let the president take credit for it.