Let Hope Grow in a Petri Dish

Don C. Reed is chairman of Californians for Cure.

I'm told that when the Nazis couldn't break a particularly courageous prisoner, they would torture his children instead. I know that would work for me. I would break in an instant, tell them any secret I knew, and if I didn't know, I would make up stuff to tell.

I know what that torment is like, because I've been there. My son, Roman, is paralyzed, and every day he suffers the agonies of the damned. Yet anti-abortionists rave about the rights of near-invisible cells in a petri dish, calling them more important than healing my son.

President Bush's pet bill, coming up for debate in the Senate, would criminalize all forms of cloning, good and bad.

One, reproductive cloning, means copying kids, implanting an embryo in the walls of a woman's womb. This is plainly wrong and must not be allowed.

But therapeutic cloning involves cells that will never grow larger than pepper flakes. There is no sperm, no implantation, no womb and no child. Just cells for cure.

If the Senate bill introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) prevails, there will be no mercy shown to the people who would heal my son with therapeutic cloning. If the bill passes, it will be a criminal act for any scientist, doctor, patient or parent to have anything to do with therapeutic cloning, subjecting them to prison time and fines of up to $1 million.

This is wrong. It must be challenged.

I have worked hard to advance medical research in my home state of California, sponsoring a research bill named after my son that has raised $4.8 million. I have testified on behalf of state Sen. Deborah V. Ortiz's (D-Sacramento) successful legislation to make California the nation's first "stem cell-friendly" state and worked with Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer on similar national legislation.

But I have also been learning Chinese, just in case my country allows religious intolerance to stamp out the most promising advance in medical history. In China, therapeutic cloning research is both legal and financially supported by the government. Estimates of American citizens with disabilities and incurable diseases who might be helped by therapeutic cloning run as high as 130 million men, women and children.

These are folks we know, loved ones in your family and mine: people with cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, AIDS, Parkinson's, heart disease and hundreds more conditions.

When the day comes that my son gets his operation, it will begin with a Q-tip swabbing inside his mouth. Those gathered cells will be microscopically injected into a woman's donated egg. After five days, stem cells will be taken from that egg. They will never be allowed to develop into a person -- only multiply. When there are enough (several million, like half a cup of water with nearly invisible specks), they will be placed inside Roman's injured neck. There, we hope, the cells will become the new, healthy nerves he needs, reconnecting body and brain.

Will it work?

Standing in the laboratory named after my son, I have held a paralyzed white rat. It was given human embryonic stem cells in an operation like the one my son could one day have. I felt the tiny muscles moving. And when I set it down, the rat scampered and played and ran.

For that research to go forward and be individualized for human use, therapeutic cloning must be allowed.

And maybe my son will fulfill Christopher Reeve's great prediction. In a letter our family will always treasure, the movie and real-life Superman said: "One day, Roman and I will stand up from our wheelchairs, and walk away from them forever."

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