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STEM-CELL PLEA MAY BE PREMATURE

News Washington correspondent Jerry Zremski analyzes and fact-checks what was said during Tuesday's prime-time television coverage of the Democratic National Convention.

To hear Ron Reagan Jr. tell it, stem-cell research could produce "the greatest medical breakthroughs in our or in any lifetime."

Stem-cell researchers agree -- but say those breakthroughs could be many years away.

"I don't think he overestimated the potential or the enthusiasm that researchers actually have for stem-cell research," said Steven Pruitt, who does such research at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and who watched Reagan's televised speech from the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday.

But as for the timing of such medical breakthroughs, "It's something you can't know in advance. He could be right, or maybe he's off by years."

While Tuesday's speeches from Teresa Heinz Kerry and others didn't raise major questions among convention-watchers, Reagan's did.

Coming shortly after the death of his father, the speech was a coup for Democrats. But critics suggested Reagan made stem cells sound like a more immediate cure than they really are.

Stem cells are the very foundation of life. And scientists believe that if they're cultivated, they could eventually be used to replace the damaged cells that cause conditions ranging from diabetes to Parkinson's disease.

While adult stem cells are being studied, researchers see great potential in stem cells from human embryos, which are later destroyed. Anti-abortion activists, saying life begins at conception, oppose that approach.

President Bush waded into that thicket when he restricted federal research funding to embryonic stem cells created before Aug. 9, 2001.

Many scientists say those restrictions had a chilling effect on private research funding, while sharply limiting the research that can be done.

That makes the expansion of stem-cell research a political issue that the son of the former president addressed with gusto.

"It does not follow that the theology of a few should be allowed to forestall the health and well-being of many," he said.

In response, Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said: "I think the impression he left was that the payoffs are on the near horizon but for the president's policy."

Ian Lyons, principal scientist and manager of stem-cell applications at GIBCO Invitrogen of Grand Island, said that while some practical benefits from such research could come in as little as five years, "certainly in 50 years, we will be able to have a real impact."

Reagan said stem cells could be used to treat diabetes, and Lyons said fast progress is being made toward that goal.

But overall, "even at the very basics, the cultivation of cells themselves, we still have technical problems to overcome."

There's also great political opposition facing another idea that Reagan advocated: therapeutic cloning, which creates stem cells from cloned embryos.

"He gave a really good description of therapeutic cloning without using the words therapeutic cloning," said Eve Herold, public education manager of the Stem Cell Research Foundation, who termed Reagan's speech "great."

Whatever the potential might be for stem-cell research, it might be noteworthy that Reagan never mentioned Alzheimer's disease in his speech.

In a recent Washington Post story, several researchers said the disease that killed President Ronald Reagan a Republican who opposed abortion -- is among those least likely to be cured with embryonic stem cells.

"I think the chance of doing repairs to Alzheimer's brains by putting in stem cells is small," researcher Michael Shelanski of Columbia University said.

e-mail: jzremski@buffnews.com.

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