Stricken star backs stem cell research

May 25, 2001

Christopher Reeve, the American celebrity who has increased public awareness of spinal cord injury, is criticising his government for its policies on human embryonic stem cell research.

Reeve told the 23rd International Symposium on Spinal Cord Trauma, a three-day conference of 350 researchers, held at the Universite de Montreal, that he saw promise in the use of stem cells to help disabled people.

Best known for his portrayal of Superman, Reeve became a quadriplegic after falling off a horse six years ago. The 48-year-old is confined to a wheelchair and respirator and heads his own foundation.

Researchers into Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and alzheimer's disease have also promoted the use of stem cells.

The attraction of embryonic cells derives from their ability to multiply several times. For the past few years, scientists have been able to make great gains in the regeneration of damaged spinal cords of laboratory rats, with the use of stem cells taken from the rodents' embryos.

It is believed that cells grown from human embryonic stem cells could be implanted into humans to replace and develop damaged neurons. The work has angered groups who believe embryonic stem-cell research is an affront to human life.

"America is a place of real contradiction. It has a tremendous infrastructure for research and talent, but it is stopped by unreasonable attitudes," said Reeve, referring to anti-abortion campaigners who want to ban the research.

"But human embryonic stem cells that could cure millions of people are not foetuses and will never become human beings. They're routinely thrown into the garbage," Reeve added.

The National Institutes of Health in the United States have issued guidelines prohibiting researchers from using federal funds to obtain human embryos. Research in which a human embryo or embryos are destroyed, discarded or knowingly subjected to risk of injury are also prohibited.

Researchers at Montreal were excited about the explosion of spinal cord research. But Wise Young, of Rutgers University, who has demonstrated successful recovery in paralysed laboratory rats, said that rules for human embryo research will further privatise research since the US restrictions only cover government-sponsored research.

Leading researcher Martin Schwab said the NIH restrictions would affect access to patients, and force academics to look for jobs outside the US.

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