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Reagan’s death spurs stem-cell talk

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WASHINGTON — Ronald Reagan's death after a long struggle with Alzheimer's disease and his widow Nancy's public vow to find a cure have rejuvenated efforts in Congress to expand stem-cell research.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a doctor, said Tuesday that a 3-year-old policy that limits federal funding should be reviewed. Proponents and patient advocates cite Nancy Reagan's influence on the issue. They point to a letter, signed by a majority of senators, urging President Bush to liberalize his policy.

"We're getting increasing signals from Capitol Hill that there's strong interest," in changing Bush's policy, says Steve McConnell, a lobbyist for the Alzheimer's Association.

But White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday that Bush's policy will remain in place because enough stem-cell lines are available for research. Congress isn't expected to challenge Bush this year. Some GOP and Democratic congressional staff members say the issue is too controversial to revive with less than five months to Election Day. Many Republicans do not want to embarrass Bush and open him to the wrath of conservative supporters opposed to research on human embryonic stem cells. House Democrats concede that opposition from Speaker Dennis Hastert and Majority Leader Tom DeLay likely dooms action this year.

Scientists say research on human embryonic stem cells holds the potential to cure Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, spinal injuries, diabetes and other conditions. Stem cells are a kind of master cell from which the body grows new organs and other tissues. Embryonic stem cells grow into every kind of cell or tissue. Researchers see cloning such cells as a way to create rejection-free transplant tissues for people suffering a wide range of ailments.

But living human embryos are destroyed to produce stem cells. Opponents say that is an immoral ending of a life, and some are religious conservatives and abortion opponents who are central to the Republican Party's base.

In an effort to find a middle ground, Bush announced a policy in August 2001 that limited federal funding for research to stem-cell lines already in existence. Today, a federal registry lists 78 lines. But only 19 are usable for research; all contain contaminants that make them unsafe to treat humans.

In a letter to Bush sent this week, 58 senators, including 14 Republicans, urged him to allow unused embryos created for infertile couples to be used for research. The letter followed a similar plea from 206 members of the House of Representatives last month. The letters, however, do not represent enough signatures to overcome a Senate filibuster or a presidential veto.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a key supporter of expanding stem-cell research, said: "Perhaps one of the smaller blessings of (Reagan's death) will be a greater opportunity for Nancy to work on this issue."

But McClellan said Tuesday that "for the first time, the government is exploring the promise of stem-cell research. But (Bush) believes that we don't have to cross a certain moral threshold" to do so.

"He does believe that we should not create life for the sole purpose of destroying it."

While no legislation to overturn the current policy is imminent, Tony Mazzaschi of the Association of American Medical Colleges says the suffering of the Reagans is a possible turning point. "I expect the pressure on the president to adjust his policy to continue building," he said.

Contributing: Judy Keen.