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Their stem cell trust in Obama

February 06, 2009|TINA DAUNT

Long before Hollywood felt comfortable expressing its politics, medicine and medical research were the entertainment industry's causes of choice.

People who think that celebrity interest in medical science begins and ends with cosmetic surgery need to take a look at the names on the buildings at Cedars-Sinai: Steven Spielberg, George Burns and Gracie Allen. It's no surprise, therefore, that stem cell research, with its promise to alleviate so many kinds of suffering and to correct injuries once thought to be untreatable, has gripped the town's conscience.

Activists in the entertainment industry -- particularly Jerry and Janet Zucker, and Lucy Fisher and her husband, Douglas Wick -- have been quietly celebrating the shift in this regard in the White House.

President Obama is expected to take action to reverse President Bush's executive order banning federal funding for embryonic stem cell projects. A bipartisan congressional coalition that includes influential Republicans such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is already committed to supporting the new president's change of direction.

Another impeccably Republican figure who supports stem cell research is former actress and first lady Nancy Reagan.

"Finally, science is legal again," said director-producer Jerry Zucker, one of Hollywood's -- and the country's -- early champions of stem cell research. (Zucker and his wife teamed up on the issue with their friends Fisher and Wick after both families discovered that their daughters had Type 1 diabetes.)

"We have fought for stem cell research, but we have also fought for science in general," Zucker said. "Whether it's to tackle global warming, a new virus or the supply of food for a growing world, we have to look to science."

The Zuckers, Fisher and Wick, along with Palo Alto real estate developer Robert Klein, started their work on the stem cell issue more than five years ago. They spearheaded Proposition 71, which created the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, while starting the nonprofit group Cures Now, which provides funding to scientists studying the use of stem cells in treating -- and potentially curing -- a range of diseases, including Parkinson's and lupus.

"When the history of stem cell research is written," said former studio head Sherry Lansing, "it will be a story of two Hollywood families fighting, among others, for cures for a host of diseases."

Lansing joined the embryonic stem cell research fight several years ago and has worked hard on the issue through her own foundation and as a member of the Regents of the University of California, overseeing the state's university hospitals.

Meanwhile, various celebrities, including Brad Pitt and Michael J. Fox, whose personal experience with Parkinson's disease has made him especially aware of stem cells' therapeutic promise, have also joined in the controversial fight. (Fox came under attack from some conservative antiabortion groups, who are strongly against the use of human embryos in the research. Radio host Rush Limbaugh went so far as to allege that the actor was feigning the symptoms of his neurological disorder.)

The attacks on Fox, along with criticism aimed at other advocates, did nothing to dissuade Hollywood on the issue. If anything, support for this branch of science has grown stronger and the industry is more united than ever in its determination to push for more government funding. Hollywood activists also have been aggressively raising money for politicians (such as Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, both Democrats) who back the scientific research.

Driven by concern over their diabetic daughter's health, Wick said he and his wife were determined not to give up. He was heartened the day Obama took office and announced "science is back."

"We're very hopeful someone in the Obama administration will say, 'Let's cure diabetes. Let's cure Parkinson's,' " Wick said. "It seems very doable."

With the president and influential lawmakers now on board, Hollywood is poised to make a major push on this front. They're just waiting in the wings at the moment for Obama to announce his plans.

"President Obama can drive the scientific breakthroughs we need to solve our most challenging health crises," said former Clinton White House staffer Chad Griffin, whose firm oversees the Cures foundation.

"This is a nation that answered one man's call to put a man on the moon in just eight years; this is a nation that grew a small research network into the global Internet that is revolutionizing our world. The new president can now rally our nation around a medical Manhattan Project aimed at defeating the world's most lethal diseases."

There are few things that Hollywood loves more than a happy ending, but doing what it takes to heal the sick may be one of them. Even if it comes with bad reviews from some members of the public.

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tina.daunt@latimes.com

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