Researchers at Kansas University Medical Center are hopeful the death of President Reagan will breathe new life into stem cell research -- an outcome they say could be the former president's biggest legacy for future generations.
Since Reagan's June 6 death after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease, the national dialogue on the issue has been reinvigorated.
"We all need to be more open about the potential benefits of stem cell therapy and exactly where we stand in progress in this area," said Dr. David Albertini, an internationally known researcher at KU Med.
The debate over deriving stem cells from human embryos, which are then destroyed, has often been framed as "abortion politics," pitting one side against the other and turning off many Americans who are tired of the battle.
But that may be changing.
In May, Nancy Reagan, the former president's widow, called for increased stem cell research -- a position contradicting that of President Bush, who imposed strict limits on the research in 2001.
A poll on stem cell research conducted after Reagan's death by the Civil Society Institute found nearly three of four Americans were more likely to support stem cell research, including 62 percent who identified themselves as fundamental or evangelical Christians.
"We can now say with certainty that the death of Ronald Reagan is altering the course of the national dialogue about stem cell research," said Pam Solo, president of the institute, a nonprofit organization that works on health care and other issues.
Scientists who conduct research on stem cells hope that some day they will be able to use the highly adaptable cells to treat Alzheimer's and other illnesses, including diabetes, Parkinson's, heart disease and multiple sclerosis.
The major debate is over whether the research should use embryonic cells, which are found in embryos, or adult stem cells, which are found in adult tissue.
Embryonic stem cells, many researchers say, have greater potential to regenerate tissue and even perhaps replace brain cells destroyed by diseases such as Alzheimer's. They are plucked by researchers from days-old fertilized eggs, known as embryos, which at that stage consist of little more than a tiny mass of cells poised to multiply and specialize into all 220 types of cells that make up the human body.
But in the process of obtaining stem cells from an embryo, the embryo is destroyed. Most often the embryos are left over from in vitro fertilization, and would have been discarded anyway.
The Bush administration in 2001 for the first time provided federal money to stem-cell research, but limited the grants to the roughly 70 stem cell lines, or cell colonies, already created by scientists. Most researchers now agree new lines are needed, after growing problems with the quality and availability of many of the original 70.
U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., has been a leading opponent of using embryonic stem cells.
Brownback could not be reached for comment, but on his Web site he states, "My position is that federally funded human embryonic stem cell research is illegal, immoral and unnecessary. Instead, we should channel federal funding toward ethical and more promising research in adult and cord blood stem cells."
Opponents of using embryonic stem cells say it essentially amounts to murdering a human, and that using stem cells from adults is more effective without harming a human life.
Last week, Brownback conducted a news conference to show the progress experienced by two accident victims who recently underwent surgeries using their own stem cells.
But according to Roll Call, a newspaper that covers Congress, the news conference backfired when one of the accident victims said the federal government should be doing more on stem cell research, and the father of the other accident victim said he disagreed with Bush's policy prohibiting federal funding of new embryonic stem cell research.
Brownback's position is in opposition to 58 of his Senate colleagues, who sent a letter to Bush in June asking him to lift the limits. Earlier, 206 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent a similar request to the White House.
The federal prohibition is hurting the scientific community in the United States, said Mary Faith Marshall, director of the Institute for Bioethics, Law and Policy at Kansas University Medical Center.
"There has been some excellent work done and published from scientists in other countries, and that is frustrating to U.S. scientists," Marshall said. "If they had more access to more stem cell lines they could be making those breakthroughs," she said.
Some reports have indicated that scientists are leaving the United States to conduct research under less restrictive conditions in other countries.
But Albertini, the Hall Family Foundation molecular medicine professor at KU Med, said those reports were exaggerated. "The U.S. is by far the leading country in the biomedical research enterprise," he said.
Albertini, however, said research was being done in England in two important areas -- how to develop embryos that produce high-quality stem cells and how to nurture stem cells without the use of feeder cells from other animals. The current restrictions are preventing that research from occurring in the United States, he said.
He said embryonic stem cell research was at a "fundamental stage."
"We recognize its potential, but our understanding of how these cells can assume other identities, nerve cells, muscle cells, we are very far away," Albertini said.
He said he respected those who oppose the use of embryonic stem cells, but that perhaps as the technology develops the choice of whether to use a treatment based on embryonic stem cell research can be left up to each person.
"We deal with that now in some transplants and blood transfusions," Albertini said. "There are religious organizations where blood transfusions are not allowed, and those choices are left up to individuals," he said.