New Stem Cell Research Advancements: The Dream of Christopher Reeve Grows Closer

The late actor Christopher Reeve was a tireless advocate of stem cell research in the last decade of his life. Paralyzed from the neck down by a horseback riding accident in 1995, Reeve dedicated his considerable talents and impressive network of powerful allies to attempt to drive forward stem cell research into the reparation of spinal cord injuries and disorders. Despite his continued acting and directing, advocacy of stem cell research became his primary professional and political focus until his death from heart attack in October 2004, nearly ten years after the accident that paralyzed him.

Reeve held an absolute, unwavering belief that the answers to irreversible spinal cord damage lay in the utilization of this controversial potential therapy. He was undaunted by his own physical limitations when fighting for enhancement of government funding into stem cell research, rather, he used his condition as an extremely effective tool when presenting his case to legislative bodies, funding organizations, and media outlets.

Is it possible that the fruits of the efforts of Christopher Reeve, and those working with him to keep stem cell research on the front burners of scientific discovery and legislative calendars, are finally finding themselves ready to be collected? Perhaps not quite, but this week there is evidence that seeds have at long last been planted that may soon grow into the trees of knowledge that may bare those fruits. And, with a little luck, those trees may grow swiftly.

Exciting new evidence about the viability of stem cell therapy for the treatment of patients living with paralysis has just been published by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University Medical School. In a study published in Annals of Neurology, the medical journal of the American Neurological Association, researchers led by Dr. Douglas Kerr studied rats that had been paralyzed and then injected with embryonic stem cells from mice. The resulting study showed that 11 of the 15 mice treated with the therapy regained significant mobility and motor function in the paralyzed limbs.

In light of this groundbreaking research, and the potential that this unprecedented study has to spark new life into the contentious and often avoided political bugaboo, could a change in the public and political response to the stem cell question be at hand? The push called for by Christopher Reeve and others for increased government funding for stem cell research may have been waiting for a banner breakthrough that could infuse skittish governmental and corporate agencies with a little more nerve. Several public interest groups and private religious organizations have effectively made the issue of stem cell research such a political hot potato that advancements have been seriously crippled by the nervous politicians’ slow response to requests for research funding. Could the work of researchers like Dr. Kerr provide that “ah ha!” moment that will nudge the reticent voters into a more corporeal and vocal support of the research efforts?

Governmental funding for stem cell research is supported by a majority of U.S. citizens. In an August 2005 Gallup Poll, in responding to the question “do you think the federal government should or should not fund research that would use newly created stem cells obtained from human embryos?” 56% of people responded that they should, while only 40% responded that they should not. One month earlier, in a poll conducted by CBS News, when asked “do you approve or disapprove of medical research using embryonic stem cells?” 56% of respondents indicated that they approved, while only 30% responded in the negative.

The work of Dr. Kerr and his associates at Johns Hopkins has been on the stem cell radar for several years now. In a 2001 interview with CNN, Christopher Reeve discussed his optimism for the research being conducted, and reiterated his concern about the effects of lackluster governmental funding for their work.

“What a couple of researchers did recently is proof of principle, which is very, very important,” said Reeve. “It was Dr. Gerhard and Dr. Kerr at Johns Hopkins, and they were able to inject mice or rats with a virus, which simulates ALS. They then injected human embryonic stem cells. Then, over a period of time, the progression of deterioration was stopped, and all the rats showed recovery of function,” he stated.

“Now, that is proof, because some people say, well, we don’t know what embryonic stem cells can do; it’s never been proven. Well, that’s a huge first step,” continued Reeve. “And of course we won’t know what they can do until we go and do the work. But the work must not be stopped, absolutely.”

That research described by Reeve in the CNN interview has now advanced to the point that researchers have been able to stimulate the reconnection of the muscles to the spinal cord with the embryonic stem cells of mice.

Still, political trepidation continues. Despite the impressive polling numbers in favor of stem cell research, the Stem Cell Research Enhancement Act of 2005, introduced the year after Christopher Reeve’s death, has been stalled in the U.S. senate for nearly a year. The bill, which would lift many of the current limitations on stem cell research that currently slow down the progress of the research and restrict the money the government puts into it, has polled incredibly well, and garnered strong bi-partisan support at its introduction.

In May 2006, the American Diabetes Association, who, like Christopher Reeve and other paralysis patients, also has a strong interest in stem cell research, spoke out about the lag time in passing the bill. The ADA publicly admonished the U.S. Senate for dragging its feet, and demanded to know just when the bill would be passed.

If Christopher Reeve were alive today to see the most recent results of the work of Dr. Kerr and his associates at Johns Hopkins, he would certainly be encouraged by current advancement in stem cell research, despite the lackluster funding and slow response to stem cell legislation. Now that advancements in the research are more tangible, perhaps the funding restrictions will be loosened and the work of advocates like Christopher Reeve will be honored. Should that happen, the reversal of paralysis due to spinal cord injuries and disorders may be closer at hand. The new research out of Johns Hopkins has certainly taken us several steps closer.

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