By Tom Still

MADISON – My father’s slow retreat in the face of Alzheimer’s Disease was typical of how it robs people of their lives. His degeneration was slow, at first, but gathered momentum over time. Independence turned to dependence. At the end, Claude Richmond Still was in otherwise fine physical shape for a man of 80, but his memory and even his ability to mumble more than a cogent word or two was gone. His body simply forgot how to function.

I’ve thought of him often in the past week or so with the passing of another American of his generation, Ronald Wilson Reagan. Like my father, the former president spent the closing years of his life battling against an encroaching darkness he couldn’t defeat, even after a lifetime of victories. Such is the relentlessness of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Nancy Reagan characteristically stood by her husband as the shadowy curtain came down — not only for him, but for millions of people who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and other presently incurable diseases. Mrs. Reagan has correctly urged the lifting of bans on human embryonic stem cell research, a step that would bring hope to people who suffer or will suffer from Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, spinal-cord injuries, heart disease and even diabetes.

In August 2001, President Bush limited federal funding for human embryonic stem cell research to a relatively small colony of existing cells. He reasoned that to allow research on new cell lines would be tantamount to creating human life in order to destroy it. This, despite the fact that all human pre-embryos used in stem cell research are donated by couples who undergo fertility treatments to have babies, and that none of those leftover cells could survive or grow into a person unless implanted in a woman’s womb. If these cells weren’t used for research, they would be thrown away.

Three years ago, Bush permitted research using 64 stem-cell lines already in use, arguing that batch was enough. But only 19 or so lines can be tapped, despite the best efforts of scientists such as UW-Madison’s James Thomson, the pioneer in the field. Over time, ethical scientists such as Thomson and his team will find it increasingly difficult to conduct meaningful research, while off-shore scientists operating under fewer restraints plunge ahead.

That’s why 58 of 100 U.S. senators, Republicans and Democrat alike, have signed a letter urging Bush to expand the number of stem cell lines. They want the government to support research that could use about 400,000 pre-embryos, called blastocysts, created but no longer wanted for in vitro fertilization. From those tiny collections of cells, new stem cell lines could be grown.

Stem cell research will take time. It won’t be funded privately, at least not fully so, because the end result is unclear. Prime research targets today may be blind alleys. But the promise is too great for the federal government and researchers to ignore. These cells might someday be encoded to replace sick or damaged brain cells, thus reversing or at least stabilizing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. They might replace damaged cells in spinal cords, or regenerate a pancreas shattered by diabetes.

It is possible to create new stem cell lines without crossing the line into what opponents describe as trafficking in body parts. If the right kind of research is not done under close supervision here in the United States, the wrong kind of research will undoubtedly be done elsewhere. The worst fears of stem cell research opponents are more likely to be realized if the federal research ban stays in place, not if it is lifted.

It is unlikely that Bush will reverse himself in an election year. But the broad-based appeal by 58 senators, including both from Wisconsin, may help revive the debate early next year. To paraphrase Nancy Reagan’s late husband, help us tear down this wall.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He is the former associate editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.