President Bush is facing mounting pressure to review his three-year old policy on human embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. At a gala dinner held on Saturday night for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF), Nancy Reagan, wife of the former US President Ronald Reagan, made a passionate speech imploring the president to change his policy. Ronald Reagan has Alzheimer's disease, one of many degenerative conditions that could eventually be treated using new therapies developed through research on ES cells.
On 9 August 2001, President Bush announced that ES cell research supported by federal funds could only take place on stem cell lines that were already in existence. Research that would cause further destruction of embryos would not be permitted. The NIH identified 78 existing ES cell lines in the world at the time. But, since then, US researchers have complained that the ES cell lines available for them are not as good as those produced later, in particular those created without the use of mouse 'feeder' cells. In March this year, the NIH conceded that 'only a fraction' of the 78 lines it identified are actually available, estimating that in the 'best case scenario', only 23 cell lines can be used by federally-funded scientists.
Nancy Reagan, who was previously known for her supporting stance on ES cell research, said that Alzheimer's had taken her husband 'to a distant place where I can no longer reach him and share our 52 years'. She added: 'science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with many answers that for so long been beyond our grasp'. 'I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this', she said.
A number of Hollywood celebrities also added their voices in support of ES cell research. Actors Harrison Ford and Calista Flockhart read letters of support for Nancy Reagan from other former presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. Dustin Hoffman, Michael J Fox, James Taylor and Larry King were also among the many celebrities attending the fundraising gala event, organised to raise money for the JDRF. The gala raised $2 million, part of a hoped for total of $20 million that the Foundation is donating to help promote ES cell research. Michael J Fox also runs a Parkinson's disease foundation, which has already contributed $10 million.