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Washington Post Chat with Christopher Reeve

Stem Cell Research and Spinal Cord Injuries

Thursday, July 12, 2001; 1pm EDT

Reeve has testified before the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and related agencies in favor of federally funded stem cell research. He continues to work to obtain increased funding from public and private sectors to cure Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, MS, ALS, stroke and spinal cord injuries.

Congresswoman Connie Morella / Capitol Hill: Mr. Reeve, first thank you for your bravery and incredible dedication. And thank you for coming out to Montgomery County in March to help open a new rehabilitation hospital. I share your commitment on the issue of stem cell research. This critical research offers hope to millions of Americans who suffer from any number of diseases and disorders. In addition, I believe that that Federal funding for is critical to ensure that this important research is conducted with appropriate oversight. Thank you again for your efforts.

Christopher Reeve: Dear Congresswoman Morella, thank you very much for your support of the work that I've been doing on behalf of our foundation and also for your position on embryonic stem cell research and I would emphasize the importance of federal oversight because we've already seen an example of what can happen without it. Just the other day scientists at the Jones Institute in Norfolk, Va. created embryos for the purpose of stem cell research and the donors were paid and I think this is a dangerous precedent. The government must fund and regulate the use of embryonic stem cells to avoid abuses and the development of a black market industry.

Washington, D.C.: Hello, Mr. Reeve, and thank you for joining us online! I have always been a fan of yours and I admire you for working on behalf of this issue. I have no doubt that with continued research, a cure for paralysis will be found. Are you concerned that the current administration--conservative as it is--will thwart progress in this area, given its deference to the pro-life movement? I hope that is not the case. So many advances have been made in this area and we have to be allowed to push forward. What can be done about this?

Christopher Reeve: I think that the issue is political rather than ethical in the president's mind and that he is compromised by having made strong statements against embryonic stem cell research during the campaign; however, the polls indicate that 77% of the American public supports this research and that 53% of Catholics, Fundamentalists and anti-abortionists also support this research because they realize it could dramatically improve the lives of 100 million Americans who suffer from a wide variety of diseases and conditions. In other words, I feel that the president now has a safety net which should allow him to reverse the position he took during the campaign.

Boston, Mass.: Mr Reeves, I am strongly in favor of stem cell research, understanding the great potential the sceience has to heal. However, how do you counter religious groups and persons who believe life begins with inception? Where do you believe life begins?

Christopher Reeve: I believe that life begins once a fertilized embryo has been successfully implanted in the womb. I think it is important to remember that for the last 40 years fertilized embryos that are left over from fertility clinics have routinely been discarded and there has never been public or governmental pressure to close down these clinics, so I don't understand why there is now such an objection to using these embryos which are going to be discarded anyway for the purposes of research. The real pro-life position should be to save the lives of people who are already living.

Bethesda, Md.: So how close (or how far away) in repairing spinal cord injuries? My hope is to see you walk again like in the commerical.

Christopher Reeve: It's very difficult to estimate the timeline but certainly recovery will be significantly delayed if federal support of stem cell research is withheld. Many scientists are nearly ready to move into clinical trials but until stem cells can be thoroughly studied they will be reluctant to proceed. One of the greatest challenges, they say, is using tissue from other species such as pigs or cows due to the problem of immune system rejection. That's why the use of human cells is so critical.

Arlington: While I hope and pray that cures can be found for your injury and other diseases, the idea of stem cell research from embryos gives me the creeps. Where do we draw the line as to what is allowed and what is not? What ethical or moral basis do we use?

Christopher Reeve: In my opinion the only cells which should be used for research would be ones taken from fertilized eggs that are going to be thrown in the garbage, a standard practice that has been in place for 40 years. I do think it is moral and ethical to save these cells and used them to heal human beings.

Hartford, Conn.: Mr. Reeve

As the father of a four year old who has suffered with juvenile diabetes since her first birthday I just cannot understand why some people would favor throwing these cells in the garbage rather then allowing them to be used for this life affirming research. What else can to do to make these people look at this issue without the blinders of their politics?

Christopher Reeve: I believe politicians make decisions based on the volume of opinion that comes from their constitutents. Every senator and representative has staff members who read the letters, e-mails and log phone calls and then give the numbers to their boss. Do not underestimate your influence as an individual. Make sure to contact your representatives. They do respond to the weight of public opinion.

Alexandria, Va.: I am also a huge fan of your work for many years both in the fields of acting and directing, and certainly now in your efforts to bring paralysis research to public attention.

I wondered since this research may also help other diseases such as Parkinson's, if your organization plans to pool it's efforts with others such as the Parkinson's Foundation or the Michael J. Fox organization to make more of an impact?

Christopher Reeve: Yes, that is exactly our strategy. We do not want to be perceived as a special interest group when millions of Ameicans are suffering from so many diseases that could be cured by stem cells. People with spinal cord injuries are just one segment of that population.

Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Reeves, I was thrilled to see that you are suing the government for their delay in approving the use of stem cell research. The lawsuit has gotten a lot of press in the disability press, but not in the mainstream press. Why do you think that is? What is the current status of that litigation? Thanks.

Christopher Reeve: About six weeks ago I joined with the seven scientists who are supporters of stem cell research and filed a lawsuit against the Bush Administration in the U.S. District Court in Washington. The suit alleges that withholding federal funding for stem cell research is illegal because a law passed by Congress in 1993 called the NIH Revitalization Act of 1993 specifically prohibits the government from withholding funding for research using aborted fetuses. Since that is the case we argue that research using cells that have not become fetuses must be funded by the government. At the moment negotiations are in progress. The Bush Administration, throught the Department of Health and Human Services, has 60 days to respond. We hope that the president will make his decision and that it will be a favorable one before the end of that time period.

Washington, D.C.: Mr. Reeve- Scientists have claimed that stem cell research could produce treatments for a multitude of diseases that effect millions of people. What happens if these treatments are realized and the demand for stem cells sky rockets? Do you believe that research being conducted now on cloning embryonic cells should be halted even though it could alliviate this shortfall?

Christopher Reeve: One important fact that is often overlooked is that researchers say that enough embryonic stem cells could be harvested over a two-year period to suit the needs of research indefinitely. I think that federal oversight of such a limited program would be appropriate and responsible.

The issue of cloning is more complex because a decision must be made when to stop. I do not think we should end up reproducing ourselves but I do think that limited cloning that would create a new heart or liver or kidney for someone who needs a transplant is acceptable. And once again, this underscores the absolute necessity for strict federal oversight.

22152: You stated "I believe that life begins once a fertilized embryo has been successfully implanted in the womb." Does that put you on the Pro-life side of the abortion debate?

Christopher Reeve: I think that the issue of abortion is more complex. Personally I believe that a woman has a right to choose what to do with her own body and I certainly believe that abortions due to rape, incest or any other compelling reason should be allowed. Again, I believe that every individual woman has the right to make her own decision.

Tucson, Ariz.: If you were president, what your policy towards research would be, taking in consideration the differing points of view of people and organizations?
(I bet a lot of Americans would like to see Christopher Reeve president of the US!)

Christopher Reeve: Thank you for those flattering remarks. I would not have to consult the polls or any of my staff on this issue if I were president because to me it is abundantly clear that all forms of stem cell research should be aggressively pursued and amply funded by the government.

D.C.: I keep hearing about 'the many types of illnesses/injuries' that may find treatment/cures thanks to stem cell research. Can you give me some specifics on the types of illnesses/injuries possible?

Christopher Reeve: Yes, probably the two diseases that would benefit most immediately would be Parkinson's and diabetes because stem cells can produce dopamine and insulin farily easily. Other conditions include heart disease, Alzheimer's, MS, ALS, spinal cord injuries, strokes and even burns.

Silver Spring, Md.: Hello Mr. Reeve,

Next week I hope to visit Mackinac Island where you filmed "Somewhere in Time." I'll think of you.

I am wondering, how successfull have animal experiments with stem cells been so far? Are they able to achieve results using stem cells from the same species?

Christopher Reeve: Yes, experiments using embryonic stem cells in mice and rats have produced dramatic recovery in animals who have suffered cardiac arrest and spinal cord injuries as well as other conditions. The urgency of using human cells comes from the success of the mouse and rat research. Scientists are very optimistic that the same success can be achieved in humans. I have personally seen rats who were made paraplegic in the laboratory fully recover after treatment with embryonic stem cells derived from their own species. There is no reason not to believe that the same can be done for people.

Washington: John Ashcroft is known for being against stem cell research. What is your response to this?

Christopher Reeve: I believe that any reasonable person who is willing to listen to both sides of the argument can be convinced that it is possible to be pro-life and pro-stem cell research at the same time. This has proved true with such conservatives as Sen. Strom Thurmond whose daughter has diabetes, former Sen. Connie Mack who is a strong opponent of abortion and Sen. Orrin Hatch who is a Mormon and a very strong opponent of abortion but these senators have wrestled with the issues and come to the conclusion that there is an enormous distinction between a stem cell and a fetus. I believe that education is the key and I am encouraged by the growing number of conservatives who are following the lead of others who understand the distinction.

One other point I'd like to make is that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church seem to differ greatly from rank and file Catholics. The polls show that 72% of white Catholics support the research and 53% of all Catholics support it in spite of opposition by cardinals and bishops. I think this is very encouraging.

Christopher Reeve: I would like to thank everybody for the opportunity to discuss this issue today. I know that many of you who have come online must know someone dear to you who is suffering from a disease or condition that could be cured by stem cell research. This issue affects the whole American family and if we think of ourselves as a family with 250 million members, then I think compassion for our brothers and sisters, parents and children, will lead us to the right conclusion. Please do everything you can to lend your support and encourage your representatives to help. Thank you very much.

Copyright 2001 Washington Post. All Rights Reserved.


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