October 1, 2022

Stem cell battle over Reagan’s Alzheimer’s death

Nancy Reagan kisses the casket containing the remains of her husband, Ronald Reagan , at the Capitol rotunda shortly before he was taken away for a state funeral ceremony at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.(AFP/Roberto Schmidt) Even in death, former US President Ronald Reagan is a flashpoint for controversy. Across the nation, editorial writers and columnists used his 10-year battle with Alzheimer’s to urge his successor, George W. Bush, to fund embryonic stem cell (hESC) research. Abortion politics should not prolong the suffering of millions of Americans, mused USA Today: “Freeing researchers from needless restrictions that stymie progress would be a fitting way to remember and honour Ronald Reagan.”

Reagan’s widow Nancy, who nursed him with great devotion throughout his illness, has become an influential recruit for the stem cell research lobby. “I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this,” she told a biomedical research fundraiser last month in a pointed dig at Bush. This drew the normally retiring Laura Bush into the fray to defend her husband’s policies: “We need to balance the interest in science with moral issues,” she told NBC’s Today show. Her own father died from Alzheimer’s in 1997.

However, the invocation of the Reagan name to promote destructive embryo research is odd. The last time Nancy Reagan’s concern for her husband’s well-being became a matter of public interest was when she was consulting an astrologer on his behalf. And as president, Ronald Reagan opposed abortion and strongly defended the “sanctity of life”. In 1988, he even signed an “Emancipation Proclamation of Preborn Children” which asserted “the unalienable personhood of every American, from the moment of conception until natural death”.

In any case, the medical writer for the Washington Post, Rick Weiss, tipped a bucket of cold water on the usefulness of stem cells for curing Alzheimer’s. His survey of leading stem cell scientists found that “of all the diseases that may some day be cured by embryonic stem cell treatments, Alzheimer’s is amongst the least likely to benefit”. Although a number of scientists do believe that hESCs will be useful in Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, Alzheimer’s is a far more complex ailment.

But few of them have tried to correct “the Reagan-inspired tidal wave of enthusiasm”. According to Mr Weiss, Nancy’s backing “is the kind of advocacy that researchers have craved for years, and none wants to slow the momentum. The pathos of a beloved president lingering in the shadowlands of Alzheimer’s tugged at American heartstrings. “To start with, people need a fairy tale,” explained Dr Ronald D.G. McKay, of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. “Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.”