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Senate bill raises hopes of stem cell research proponents

ALBANY, N.Y. — A state Senate bill drafted in response to former First Lady Nancy Reagan’s plea for more stem cell research has raised hopes that New York will validate the scientific exploration into what advocates say holds promise for victims of Alzheimer’s disease and other conditions.

Sen. Nicholas Spano said more than 100 million Americans suffer from cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, heart disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and other conditions that some scientists think could be alleviated by advances in stem cell research. He said Nancy Reagan’s renewed call for such research in May, just before former President Ronald Reagan died of Alzheimer’s after a decade-long battle, inspired his legislation.

“Human stem cell research and therapeutic cloning offer immense promise for developing new treatment and prevention methods for these debilitating diseases,” said Spano, a Westchester County Republican.

The Senate bill does not go far enough, Democratic state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, but it may signal the willingness of the Republican-controlled chamber to embrace stem cell research. The Assembly is again pushing a bill it passed in 2003 to validate such research, as Silver said California, New Jersey and other states have done.

Republican President George Bush opposes an expansion of stem cell research because of its potential to lead to human cloning, which is anathema to conservatives and religious fundamentalists. Both the Senate and Assembly bills in New York would permit stem cell research in New York but prohibit cloning.

Silver said many of the same objections to stem cell research were voiced in the 1970s when DNA research was emerging, with much of the best work being done by New York scientists. The understanding of DNA has led to several medical breakthroughs, he said.

“Our challenge is to break down the walls of ignorant fears,” Silver said.

Stem cells from human embryos have been found to form all types of cells. Medical researchers say stem cells hold the promise of being able to serve as replacements to cells damaged by diseases like Alzheimer’s or in traumatic injuries.

Mike Discipio, who was made a quadriplegic by a swimming pool accident in suburban Albany, said spinal cord injury victims are desperate for the advances possible in stem cell research. In 2003, actor Christopher Reeve appeared in Albany to promote the Assembly’s stem cell research bill. Reeve was paralyzed in a horse riding accident in 1995.

“All eyes are on us right now,” Discipio said.

Robin Elliott, executive director of the Parkinson’s Disease Fund, said no one knows “what doors may be opened” by stem cell researchers.

“One thing is certain, however: We will never know unless we allow the best scientists to pursue the most promising science with the fewest constraints,” Elliott said.

Silver said the death of former President Reagan, plus sympathy for his wife and family, has focused attention again on the need to overcome dreaded diseases like Alzheimer’s and alleviate the suffering of their victims and families. He dismissed speculation that Republicans would oppose stem cell research because of the White House’s opposition.

“I don’t think that conquering Alzheimer’s or conquering juvenile diabetes is a political issue,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a Republican or a Democratic issue.”

Republicans who control the state Senate in New York recognize stem cell research as an “important” matter, Majority Leader Joseph Bruno said.

“We would like to get something that works,” Bruno said. “It sure would help a great deal if the feds would deal with this in a realistic way.

Associated Press Writer

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