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Washington Post Online Chat with Christopher Reeve

Actor and Political Activist Christopher Reeve

Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2000; 8 p.m. EDT

Christopher Reeve is one of the founding members of the Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan organization of entertainers supporting First Amendment rights and other political issues. This week, the Creative Coalition is sponsoring a fundraiser to benefit the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, an organization set up to encourage and support research to develop treatments and a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders. Reeve was live online on Wednesday, August 16. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Free Media: Good evening, Mr. Reeve, and welcome. The Creative Coalition is hosting a benefit tonight for the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. Can you talk a little bit about the foundation, its work and how the Creative Coalition has come to be involved in supporting it?

Christopher Reeve: The Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation is dedicated to finding a cure for spinal cord injury paralysis and other diseases of the brain and central nervous system. The Creative Coalition is a group of people in the entertainment industry -- not just actors, but people in all the crafts of theater and film -- who are interested in becoming informed on the issues and trying to affect change. And I happen to have been one of the founders of the Creative Coalition in 1989 and served as president for two years before my accident. So this is the first time since the accident that the two entities have gotten together. It's interesting to me because I'm wearing two hats -- as a member of the Creative Coalition and as chairman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. We are expecting more than 500 people, and the ticket prices start at $50 and go up to $1,000, so if you do the math it should work out pretty well. It really is more about awareness than about a dollar amount.

Potomac, Md.: Mr. Reeve, I would think the focus of your fund-raising efforts for research into spinal trama and other disorders is a bipartisian issue, not benefiting from an advocacy of one party or another. Yet, I hear your name always associated with the DNC. There are very real sympathizers and considerable support for your cause within the Republican ranks -- have any conversations been held between your people and the Bush campaign? I truly believe there is considerable potential here.

Christopher Reeve: I have been working with both parties in my lobbying efforts for more funding for biomedical research, and in fact, Sen. Specter, former senator Hatfield, Rep. Porter and Sen. Jeffords have all been very supportive of our efforts. Nothing can be achieved in this area without bipartisan cooperation, and I would be happy to work with whichever candidate wins. And I think that it is essential to keep the cooperation that has already been established.

Argonne, Wis.: Hello there Chris. I'm a 29-year-old c-5-6 quad. I broke my neck on my honeymoon 3.5 years ago in Mexico. My question is, how long do you feel it will take before this/your stem cell break through can be applied to humans? If you need a hard-working volenteer, I'll pony-up. Thank you.

Christopher Reeve: I appreciate your enthusiasm, but you should understand that the process of going from rats to humans is unpredictable. First, scientists must demonstrate safety and efficacy, and then they have to obtain enough funding to work on large numbers of people and obtain FDA approval. So it's hard to say for sure, but stem cells are clearly going to be a key element in the quest for a cure. And I think that because they can cure so many diseases that the process of moving into humans will go fairly quickly -- perhaps even within a couple of years.

Helena, Mont.: Mr. Reeve, you have promoted stem cell research as something which will help find cures to numerous major diseases. However, such research involves the destruction of unborn children. Would you consider supporting other forms of research that don't take lives to save lives?

Christopher Reeve: I disagree with your premise. For the last 40 years, fertilized embryos that are not used in fertility clinics have routinely been discarded, and no one has seriously objected. These embryos are not fetuses. They will never become human beings. I am opposed to using fetal tissue, but human embryonic stem cells that would otherwise go in the garbage can be used to cure many diseases and save thousands of lives. So even though it will be possible to use adult stem cells in some cases, researchers must have the freedom to pursue research in both areas.

Bucks, England: The news that researchers have cultured nerve cells from bone marrow stem cells is very exciting! Do you know where the researchers go from here?

Christopher Reeve: Yes. This achievement was made by Dr. Ira Black, who is financed in part by my foundation. His laboratory is at the University of New Jersey Medical School, and in a recent conversation, he told me that he would be working on large numbers of rats and mice and then probably pigs before moving into humans. And yet the beauty of his breakthrough is that it uses stem cells that are from within the patient's own body, and therefore there will be no problem with immune rejection or toxicity or tumors. And of course, there are adult stem cells taken from the bone marrow, which have already been approved for use in treating bone marrow cancer in humans. So approval for their use in spinal cord injuries as well as other diseases of the brain and central nervous system should come very rapidly.

Stem cells are cells that are capable of becoming any tissue in the human body. They have no particular identity. They are called the body's self-repair kit because they are able to perform so many different functions. But in order to create a new heart or to create a nerve to replace the ones damaged in spinal cord injuries, you need cells that have no identity. These cells are able, just by being genetically engineered and placed in a specific environment, to adapt to that environment and to become whatever is necessary.

Indianapolis, Ind.: Al Gore has advocated policies, such as price controls, that would devastate the research-based pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Indeed, drug pricing seems to be his pet issue. As someone who understands the significant expense and extreme importance of medical research and development, how can you support Mr. Gore?

Christopher Reeve: I am not aware that that's his policy, so I would have to research that further before I could comment. I in fact would doubt that that's his policy, but perhaps the questioner has more information than I do.

Freehold, New Jersey: I understand that you can't tell us everything scientists may tell you in confidence, but I think everyone here would appreciate your best guess as to when spinal injured people may have access to truly effective therapies.

Christopher Reeve: It's very difficult to predict the timeline because it depends on how successful the transition is from animals to humans. There's every expectation that what works on a rat will work on a person. But even if that's the case, there's always the question of funding. Because human trials are very expensive, humans take up more space and eat more than rats, and somebody has to pay for it, whether it's the government or venture capital or private foundations, money is a very big issue. The reason is you can't just cure half a dozen people and get a cure approved by the FDA. You have to show that it will work on literally hundreds of thousands of people. And every spinal cord injury is different. For example, some people's spines are bruised or somehow nerves are cut. Some have spinal cords that have atrophied. Scientists are working on at least four different fronts to deal with every kind of spinal cord injury. It's not like breaking a bone and setting it, which only requires one technique. So it's complex. But at the same time, I think we're talking about a few years, not a few decades.

Free Media: You have a long history of political activism. Which issues are and have been the most important to you, and what spurred you to get involved in politics?

Christopher Reeve: I became politically active in high school, protesting the Vietnam War. And when I went to Cornell, I became involved in environmental issues. And then, as an adult, I became involved in First Amendment issues and funding for the arts. And now that I am disabled, of course my main focus is on the quality of life for all disabled people and doing everything I can to help scientists make progress toward cures.

Bucks, England: I could be wrong, but there seems to be the idea that those in the public eye (be it politicians, actors, music artists, etc.) should be "role models" for the general public. Do you think that this is fair?

Christopher Reeve: No, I don't think it's fair. And often, famous actors, sports figures or musicians are not well informed or articulate on the issues. But we are a celebrity-driven culture, and since that's the case, we have to make the best of it and hope that some celebrities will make intelligent use of their position, because they can have a powerful influence on politicians and the media, and in fact, can be very useful. But I agree that it's not a good system, and that fame often is achieved by people who have no particular ability, which makes it even worse.

Greenbelt, Md.: Mr Reeve, while I salute your involvement in the political process, I was frankly surprised this past week to see how very politically partisan you are with your complete endorsement of all aspects of the Clinton administration and now the candidacy of Vice President Gore. What has the Democratic Party done so well -- or better yet -- exactly what has the GOP not done, especially in the area of medical research funding, that makes you such a champion of the Democrats?

Christopher Reeve: Actually, the Republicans have done more for the disabled and for funding medical research over the past eight years than the Democrats. But on many other issues, such as the environment, education, gun control, choice, I support the Democrats, and I am more sympathetic to their position. So looking at the overall picture, I prefer Gore over Bush. I would like to see a Democratic Congress. And yet, this will not detract at all from the bipartisan work on research that has been led by the Republicans. In fact, I have been involved in this convention in writing a plank for the platform, which will ensure a very substantial commitment by the Democratic Party to better compliance with the ADA, better opportunities for the disabled, and more funding for biomedical research. And I'm pleased to say that the submission I made for that plank was adopted unanimously yesterday.

Freehold, New Jersey: Many people who advocate "care not cure" have given you a hard time over the years. What do you have to say to these critics?

Christopher Reeve: I think everyone who is disabled has to deal with it in their own way. And I respect each individual's way of coping and learning to live with a disability. But I believe that we can have an initiative for improving the quality of life now, and push for a cure at the same time. And even a few years ago, a cure seemed impossible, so of course there was very little reason to hope. But since I was injured in the mid-90s, just as scientists began to unravel some of the mysteries of the spinal cord, the picture changed. And there is now a real reason to hope. And that's why I say we should go for it. But I want to reassure everybody that I take my responsibilities very seriously, and when I express optimism, it is based on conversations and meetings with some of the best scientists in the world. And they have no reason to lie. So be assured that while there are no guarantees about the future, we have to admit that tremendous progress has been made, and personally, I would like to have my freedom again. But of course, other people may feel differently. And I respect that.

Free Media: That was our last question today for Christopher Reeve. Thanks so much to Mr. Reeve, and to everyone who joined us.


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