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The Australian Opinion Editorial - January 14, 2003

Christopher Reeve: Politics should not infect cure quest

In the autumn of 1995, several months after an equestrian accident left me paralysed from the shoulders down, I became an advocate for spinal cord injury research and the quality of life for people living with disabilities.

At first, I assumed that hope for better therapies and the quest for a cure would depend on resolving two basic issues: adequate funding and increasing the number of scientists dedicated to the cause.

Since then the research budget for the National Institutes of Health in the US has escalated from $US12.7 billion to approximately $US27.2 billion ($46.6 billion) for the present financial year. The study of degenerative diseases and disorders of the central nervous system, once considered a dead end for post-docs planning their careers, now attracts some of the best young minds in the country. Even leading researchers have had to abandon conventional wisdom in the light of significant breakthroughs made in recent years.

Wise Young, director of the spinal cord research program at Rutgers University, said upon his return from observing human trials under way in Japan that he would now have to discard everything he had been taught about regeneration. Other investigators have discovered that even in some cases of chronic injury, motor memory remains in the cord, which can facilitate recovery by means of physical therapy.

What I did not anticipate in 1995 was the extent to which hope would depend on politics. The catalyst was the isolation of human embryonic stem cells at the University of Wisconsin in 1998. I naively assumed that these tiny cells, with their ability to become any tissue or cell type in the body, would be rapidly deployed in the fight against a wide range of diseases with federal funding by governments all over the world.

Instead, even as scientists demonstrated the ability of embryonic stem cells to halt the progress of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or to overcome paralysis in mice, the subject became a political football. The pace of progress slowed dramatically as nations debated the efficacy and morality of adult stem cells, embryonic stem cells, and stem cells derived through nuclear transfer.

In spite of being as impatient for recovery as millions of others living with devastating illnesses and disabilities, I learned to appreciate the sensitive nature of the stem cell issue and the need for thorough debate.

What I have yet to understand is why countries that are allies, that share cultural, religious and ethical standards, none of which can rightfully claim moral superiority to any other, have enacted opposing and divisive legislation.

Why is there government support for all forms of stem cell research in Britain, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Israel, Singapore and Japan, but not in the US, Germany, France, Canada or Australia?

No one can say at this moment exactly what technologies or avenues of research will lead to cures. So we should err on the side of unfettered scientific inquiry; that is how we can keep hope alive.

It was a positive step forward when the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council met in London with counterparts from eight other countries earlier this month to discuss international policy. It will be a positive step forward when NSW Premier Bob Carr's forum convenes in Sydney on January 27 and particularly when we gather the following evening to raise funds for the Prince of Wales Research Institute. I'm grateful for the opportunity to visit Australia and to learn more about how we can work together to serve those in need.

Christopher Reeve, an author, director and Emmy-winning actor, will deliver the keynote address at the Premier's Forum on Spinal Cord Injury and Conditions in Sydney on January 27 and at the Prince of Wales Institute Gala Dinner at Fox Studios on January 28.


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