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Superman actor advanced the stem cell cause

11 October 2004
By Dr Kirsty Horsey
reproduction editor, BioNews
Appeared in BioNews 279
People across the world will be saddened by the death of Christopher Reeve, the American actor best known for his role as Superman. Indeed, looking at some of the websites where people can send their tribute messages, many people have been shocked about the news of his death at such a relatively young age, calling him a 'childhood hero' and a 'brilliant man'. Many have also been inspired to comment about what they see as his bravery and determination in the final years of his life, battling against his own paralysis while campaigning for medical research to ease the plight of others like him in the future.

One of the things Reeve believed passionately in was the potential benefit that may come from human embryonic stem cell (ES) research. Many scientists believe that ES cells, which are 'master cells' capable of growing into any kind of body tissue, could be used to treat - and potentially cure - many illnesses and conditions that are currently incurable. The list includes Parkinson's disease, diabetes and spinal cord injury, which Reeve himself had been debilitated by. He also believed in therapeutic cloning, another potential future treatment, in which it is hoped that stem cells derived from cloned human embryos can be matched to patients, to avoid the risk of rejection.

There is no do doubt that the addition of Reeve's voice to the stem cell debate massively helped raise the profile of the issue, both in the US and across the world. ES cell research was a relatively new and unproven area when he began to campaign, and he helped bring the science out of the realms of just a few scientists doing research, and politicians debating the ethical issues, and into the public arena.

And the public arena is exactly the place that these debates should be aired - after all, it's the public who suffer from, or are affected by, these conditions on a day-in-day-out basis. The US presidential campaign is currently a forum for the issues on ES cell research. Bush is refusing to bend on his restrictive policy, while Kerry pledges to give more federal money for ES cell research, without the current limitations on the use of existing stem cell lines or the creation of better new ones. Kerry is supported by other famous names who, over the past year or so have added their support. Harrison Ford, Calista Flockhart, James Taylor, Larry King, Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar (founder of ebay), Dustin Hoffman, Michael J Fox, Nancy Reagan and others, including former US presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, are all in favour of ES cell research in the US. Let's hope that more join them, and that some good can come out of Reeve's untimely death, and his tireless campaigning will not have been in vain.

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Embryonic stem (ES) cell research is becoming a hot topic in the US presidential campaign. While president Bush claims that he supports the research, he has placed restrictions on the use of ES cells by federally-funded scientists. Despite increasing pressure on him to change the policy, he is sticking to...
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