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Little by little, stem-cell supporters gaining ground

| Source: sun-sentinel.com

When Bernie Siegel started pushing for stem-cell research three years ago, the tide was moving decidedly in the other direction.

Laws were being proposed to put researchers in jail. To put patients in jail!

Now the momentum is running the other way — despite President Bush’s recent stem-cell veto, in which the war president showed his commitment to the sanctity of life by a stalwart defense of eight-cell embryos.

“The pro-cure forces,” Siegel says, “are galvanized as never before.”

Siegel, an attorney-turned-activist, heads the Genetics Policy Institute, a national advocacy organization headquartered not in Washington, but in Wellington.

He’s seeing all kinds of hopeful signs:

The bill that Bush vetoed passed the Republican-led Congress. It got support from such conservative stalwarts as Orrin Hatch and Bill Frist.

In Florida, a majority of state senators backed a bill by Sen. Ron Klein, D-Boca Raton, looking to provide $150 million in state money for embryonic stem-cell research. The bill faltered, needing a two-thirds majority. It wouldn’t have overcome the opposition of Gov. Jeb Bush in any case.

The two Democrats vying for governor, state Sen. Rod Smith and U.S. Rep. Jim Davis, are stem-cell supporters.

So is Republican candidate Charles Crist, who said he “respectfully” disagreed with W’s veto.

Among the candidates, that leaves just Tom Gallagher, who is reaching for the religious right’s vote and who trails Crist for the GOP nomination, in clinging to the view that the sun revolves around the Earth — I mean, that it’s immoral to use embryonic stem cells to seek new medical cures.

Earlier this year, backers of a Florida constitutional amendment seeking $200 million over 10 years for stem-cell work dropped their drive, hoping the Legislature would come up with the funding. The defeat in Tallahassee hardly ended things, Siegel said. Even if the Legislature fails again next year, the drive for signatures can resume in time for the 2008 election, Siegel said.

No one should be expecting medical miracles from stem-cell research anytime soon. But the properties of these cells, which can differentiate into any cell or tissue type in the body, offer the hope of revolutionary treatments for everything from Alzheimer’s to spinal-cord injury.

It may not happen fast enough for Sabrina Cohen.

As a 14-year-old in Miami Beach, she and her best friend hopped into a crowded car on their way to a party. The driver got in a street race. The car crashed. Fifteen minutes after leaving her house, the dazzling young woman who had been an avid gymnast, dancer, tap dancer and swimmer was a quadriplegic.

Now 28, she makes the South Beach scene in a wheelchair. “I’ve had my phases of Denial,” she says, “but now 14 years later, I’ve found my mission.”

That being: to raise awareness. An associate director of Siegel’s group, she has designed a line of T-shirts with saucy but pungent messages such as “Unlock the Cells,” a play for support from the MTV generation.

The big hope now, she says, is in the private sector: A new Harvard Stem Cell Institute. The Scripps Research Institute, banding with the Salk and Burnham Institutes to embark on stem-cell research — not in Florida, of course, where Scripps dares not annoy the governor by even venturing the topic, but in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California, which has committed $3 billion in state funding for stem-cell investigations.

Does she see a cure coming?

“I don’t want to oversell the promise, but I think the possibility is there,” Cohen told me, after dialing her cell phone with the knuckle of a pinky finger, about as much motility as she can muster.

“If in the next couple of years, I can regain the use of my hands, that would alter my life drastically.”

Thanks to the Bush era, science has lost time in helping Sabrina, and millions of others, to be freed from what are now incurable conditions.

But a solid majority of the American public wants this research. And it looks better and better that we’re going to get it.

Let’s hope that when Sabrina gets back the use of her hands, that’s just for starters.

Howard Goodman

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