By Maggie Fox, Health and Science Correspondent
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Christopher Reeve, the paralyzed actor who died nine years after a riding accident, worked tirelessly to promote medical advances, especially the controversial stem cell research that has emerged as a campaign issue this year.
Reeve, who was a fixture on Capitol Hill, became a part of the debate himself as recently as last week, getting mention on the divisive question in the presidential debate between President Bush (news – web sites) and his Democratic challenger, John Kerry.
The Massachusetts senator, who has criticized Bush for limiting stem cell research, called Reeve “a friend of mine” and told viewers of the St. Louis debate: “And I want him to walk again.”
Reeve’s death was the second of a celebrity this year that has propelled the stem cell issue to the forefront of political debate. When former President Ronald Reagan died, his son Ron Reagan spoke out in support of lifting federal restrictions on the use of human embryos as the source of stem cells and his widow Nancy also broke a long silence on the issue.
The Reagans believe stem cell research could have helped find a cure of the former president’s Alzheimer’s disease.
“It’s really quite remarkable that a story about a medical research advance has found itself at the white hot center of presidential politics and congressional politics this year,” said Dan Perry, head of the Alliance for Aging Research and the Coalition for the Advancement of Medical Research.
“I can’t think of any other issue to come out of laboratory that has become so contentious.”
Reeve died on Sunday during treatment for an infected pressure wound and had been paralyzed since the horseback riding accident in 1995.
He used a wheelchair and a portable Ventilator to navigate the halls of the U.S. Congress and lobby for the research he was certain would ultimately provide a way to treat injuries like his, regenerating severed nerve cells using the body’s powerful master cells.
“He spoke at our rallies, he came to Capitol Hill, he appeared on television, he was really Mr. Hope. Here was this young, vibrant man, paralyzed in a very profound way, who continued to say, ‘I will walk again,”‘ Perry said.
Reeve supported the use of cloning technology to generate stem cells, rejecting arguments that the nuclear transfer technique made a tiny human being worthy of the rights of any infant.
He embraced the scientific argument that such technology would one day allow a doctor to take a plug of skin from a patient and use it to engineer personally tailored cells to repair injury or disease.
He also argued for the use of embryos left frozen at fertility clinics after attempts to make IVF or test-tube babies.
“Is it more ethical for a woman to donate unused embryos that will never become human beings, or to let them be tossed away as so much garbage when they could help save thousands of lives?” he asked a congressional hearing in 2000.
Strong opponents of abortion such as Utah Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch (news, bio, voting record) support embryonic stem cell research and are among 206 members of the U.S. House of Representatives and 58 members of the Senate who have signed letters urging Bush to lift restrictions on using federal funds for embryonic stem cell research.
California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein (news, bio, voting record) said she and co-sponsors, including Hatch, would press ahead with a bill to lift the federal limits.
“It is my intent to urge my co-sponsors to name the bill the Christopher Reeve National Stem Cell Act when it is reintroduced in the next Congress,” Feinstein said in a statement.