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Germ of a Message Lies in Silence Over Stem Cells

October 01, 2002|JAMES P. PINKERTON | James P. Pinkerton writes a column for Newsday in New York. E-mail: pinkerto@ix.netcom.com.

Milly Kondracke sits in a wheelchair, unable to care for herself, unable to communicate. Her devoted husband, Morton--the couple will celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary next week--can only hope she understands him when he tells her he loves her. Morton Kondracke, of course, is one of the best-known journalists in Washington, but he is much prouder of his role in combating Parkinson's disease, which has afflicted his wife since 1987.

Over the last decade, he has become deeply involved in efforts to energize Parkinson's research and medical inquiry overall. "I am an advocate," he says firmly. That advocacy has been successful; indeed, it's about to go further--rolling over President Bush on the issue of stem cell research.

Last year, Kondracke published "Saving Milly: Love, Politics, and Parkinson's Disease." In it, Milly emerges as a tragic symbol, a symbol to galvanize support for the next round of research, which Kondracke and most other experts believe will require the expanded use of embryonic stem cell tissue. And so the political battle is joined, although it won't be much of a fight.

Embryonic stem cells are derived from fetal tissue--typically, from a 5-day-old blastocyst, a clump of perhaps 100 cells about the size of the period at the end of this sentence.

At such an early stage of development, embryonic stem cells can be converted to any other kind of human cell and thus can be used to treat a variety of ailments, including diabetes, Alzheimer's and Huntington's, as well as, potentially, spinal cord injuries.

No wonder so many high-profile victims of disease and accidents, including Michael J. Fox, Muhammad Ali and Christopher Reeve, have made common cause on the stem cell issue. Put bluntly, in political terms, it's a battle between glamorous celebrities and a dwindling band of religiously oriented conservatives, one of whom, at least in theory, is Bush.

On Aug. 9, 2001, Bush went on national television to offer a compromise: Although no additional stem cell "lines" could be federally funded, research could continue on existing lines. Further discussion of the issue was blanked out by Sept. 11, but now it is cresting again.

On Sept. 22, California Gov. Gray Davis signed legislation permitting stem cell research in the Golden State; three days later, a parade of experts testified before the U.S. Senate about the deleterious effect of the Bush restrictions on medical progress.

That same night, Nancy Reagan appeared on "60 Minutes II" to talk about the impact of Alzheimer's on her husband--followed up by an authorized leak to the New York Times in which she lamented that "a lot of time is being wasted" because of Bush's strictures. "A lot of people who could be helped are not being helped," she added.

And what does Bush have to say in response? Not much. He assembled a commission, which Kondracke dismisses as "stacked" to the right. In fact, the commission was a model of fairness and balance--which might explain why it barely agreed with the Bush position, endorsing a four-year moratorium on stem cell research by a 10-7 vote. Still, Kondracke is correct when he says that its final report will have "no effect at all" in stopping continuing research.

Meanwhile, the president hasn't addressed the issue since April.

Bush is busy on other issues, of course. And that's the point. A president can fight only so many wars. Meanwhile, science marches on, defying politics.

On Jan. 16, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas announced that it had launched the first clinical trial to mifepristone as a cancer treatment. Mifepristone is better known as RU-486, the "morning after pill" that has been opposed by the last three Republican presidents. It's interesting that the chairman of the board of visitors at M.D. Anderson is one of those Republican presidents, George H.W. Bush.

From all this "quietly looking the other way," it seems obvious that neither Bush worries much about the fate of blastocysts and fetuses.

For religious conservatives, that may be disappointing news, but for most Americans, anxious for research to continue, anxious for cures, that silence is golden.

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