June 10, 2004 -- The nation could not help but feel for Nancy Reagan.
For 10 painful years, she helped her husband in his battle with Alzheimer's disease. When she chose to speak publicly about it, people paid attention.
"And now," she said in a speech on May 8, "science has presented us with a hope called stem cell research, which may provide our scientists with answers that have so long been beyond our grasp. I just don't see how we can turn our backs on this."
Of all the issues for Mrs. Reagan to take on publicly, the use of stem cells is among the most delicate. Stem cells may help lead to cures for many diseases, but to create them, researchers have had to destroy human embryos. To many people who describe themselves as pro-life conservatives, the end does not justify the means.
"Nancy Reagan has been using the Reagan name to promote the cause of embryo stem cell research," said Nigel Cameron, president of the Institute on Biotechnology and the Human Future. "Everyone knows President Reagan would never have supported that."
But people who know Mrs. Reagan were not surprised by her activism.
"She knew for a long time that stem cell research was too late to cure her beloved Ronnie," said Kenneth Duberstein, a former White House chief of staff, who joined her in the belief that the government ought to expand its support for stem cell research. "As she got more and more involved in Alzheimer's, she realized that stem cells could make a critical difference."
Is Alzheimer's Different?
Scientists who work on Alzheimer's say they are grateful that Mrs. Reagan has spoken up, but they worry that the American public has a misimpression. Indeed, they say, stem cells may someday be used to cure a long list of afflictions, from cancer and heart disease to diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But they do not expect it to do much for Alzheimer's patients.
Stem cells may eventually be able to replace almost any damaged cells in the body.
But in the case of Alzheimer's disease, it is not necessarily the cells that need to be replaced.
"The early changes in Alzheimer's disease are a loss of the connections between nerve cells, without death of the nerve cells themselves," said Dr. Michael Shelanski, co-director of the Taub Institute for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and the Aging Brain at Columbia University.
"Throwing stem cells into an AD brain and hoping to reform lost nerve connections," said Rudolph Tanzi of Harvard Medical School, "is analogous to just throwing wires or transistors into a broken stereo and hoping they will rewire themselves and get the sound back again."
Nevertheless, supporters say Nancy Reagan has helped start a quiet new movement: people who call themselves conservative, but still believe that stem cell research is the right thing to do.
"This is not destruction," said Duberstein. "This is creating new life."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, agreed. He favors expansion of stem cell work, and has discussed it with Mrs. Reagan.
"Ronald Reagan will have played a tremendous role because his wife is one of the leaders in this," said Hatch. "She's an articulate spokesperson. She's a beautiful, wonderful woman."