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Actor Michael J. Fox Advocates Stem-Cell Research Before Senate Committee

Aired September 14, 2000 - 11:24 a.m. ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: Michael J. Fox, now, testifying in front of a Senate committee on Capitol Hill. The issue, here, is stem-cell research.


SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), PENNSYLVANIA: ... Emmy Award for best actor in a comedy series for his work in "Spin City." He was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991 at the age of 30, and since announcing his retirement from "Spin City," he's been devoting his time to the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research.

And I might comment that he even came to the Republican convention in Philadelphia.



SPECTER: Well, when you -- when Senator Harkin mentions that you hit them both -- I wasn't at the other one. Which was the other one, did you say?


FOX: Actually, it's a nonpartisan problem that will take a bipartisan solution.

SPECTER: Well, we are bipartisan here, as the Democrat represent -- Republican representation on the podium suggests.

But you have done spectacular work and, from time to time, questions are raised about celebrities appearing at congressional hearings. In fact, it's even more that questions, there's some pretty severe criticism about it; but we make no apologies because we need public awareness of issues like stem cells, which could cure Parkinson's, or Amytropic Lateral Sclerosis, or Alzheimer's.

And when public attention is focused on Michael J. Fox because the American people know you, Michael, it is a great use of your talent and celebrity status to let people know what's going on and get public support for this kind of a measure. So we thank you for your time and your efforts, and we know how debilitating the illness is, and we're just very hopeful that soon -- we have the testimony from the scientists this morning, in two to three years, they'll be ready for use with people, and that you'll be back on ABC TV, I don't want to say that to the derogation of the other networks, which are here, but back -- well you choose where you go back. We just want you back.

FOX: I'll be open to all offers.

SPECTER: The floor is yours, Mr. Fox.

FOX: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, Senator Harkin. Thank you for inviting me to testify and good morning.

It is hard to believe that -- I should also say thank you to my fellow panelists, I'm honored to be in your company, and let's hope it's for the good.

It's hard to believe an entire year has past since I first appeared before this subcommittee and addressed the need to increase federal funding for Parkinson's research. I'm grateful for that opportunity to speak on behalf of the Parkinson's community about the reality of living with this disease.

It was during that hearing in September of '99 that scientists provided exciting testimony as to just how close we may be to a cure for Parkinson's. In pursuit of that cure, I'm back this year to lend my voice, and that of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, to support federal funding for potent stem-cell research, including that research covered by the NIH guidelines, and that was on August 23rd.

I don't intend to become a professional witness, I'm not a politician, nor am I a doctor, nor a research scientist. You don't need me to explain embryonic stem-cell research, or its medical applications.

So what does qualify me to be at this table? The answer is simple. I'm one of a million involuntary experts on Parkinson's Disease in the United States battling its destructive nature as we wait for a cure.

We need a rescue, and the country should know it. I'm also here because I'm a guy with PD who happens to be on TV. Because of that, many people have felt comfortable reaching out to me.

By now, many of you have heard my story, but you haven't heard this story about a 38-year-old senior editor whose PD caused her to lose her job at a publishing house, plunging her from New York's middle class into poverty. She's now forced to exist on Medicare and SSDI benefits, which are nearly consumed by her monthly medication costs alone.

Nor have you heard about my new friend, a former lawyer, now living on disability who corresponds with me regularly. Two weeks ago, his friends and family watched in horror as he disappeared into stony immobility while waiting for a prescription delivery that had been delayed. This demonstrated dramatically just how tenuous normalcy is.

And you've never hear about Brenda, a 53-year-old former computer specialist. Recently her drugs failed to kick in, and she found herself frozen in a bathtub with no one to help her. She remained there for hours until enough medication had reached her brain to allow her to crawl out of the tub.

By this time, she was suffering a panic attack and couldn't speak. She could only reach her computer to contact friends for help. Her biggest regret, she says, now, was that CNN was not there to provide live, up-to-the-minute coverage of her predicament.

None of these people mind that I get more attention than they do. They simply say, that if I get a shot at this microphone, that I start talking.

So here I am, again.

For two years, you've had a parade of witnesses, scientist, ethicists, theologians of every school, and some celebrities, discussing every nuance of stem cell research. You've given time to all sides of the issue, including the few but very vocal opponents. But the consistent and inescapable conclusion is that this research offers a potential to eliminate diseases, literally save millions of lives.

So while I applaud your thoroughness, I can't help but say respectfully: enough. It's time to act on what we've learned. Sadly, we've already lost two years progress toward a cure. Further delay would come at a high price. That is why I'm back before this committee today.

Every day funding is delayed means that a person with Parkinson's is getting closer to total loss of independence or slipping slowly toward the progressive inevitability of this disease. These delays have real human consequences that are measured in human suffering and loss of life.

The pioneers in the stem cell research, Drs. Gearhart, Thompson and West, told this committee in December of 1998 that Parkinson's would be one of the first diseases to benefit from the use of stem cells. So researchers have testified it would take at least three years from the time they received funding to the development of the first stem cell therapies for Parkinson's. Even at the fastest possible pace under the newly released NIH guidelines, the first scientists to receive federal funding won't begin working until late next year, which all means that we are still years away from a rescue. Please help us to not wait any longer than we have to.

I'm not here solely to represent the benefits of stem cell research for Parkinson's patients. There are many other promising applications, from heart disease to blindness to Alzheimer's to burn victims to cancer to HIV/AIDS to stroke to autism to deafness to schizophrenia to diabetes to MS and ALS.

Stem cell research could also help those with spinal cord injuries. My friend Christopher Reeve sends his regrets that he couldn't be here today to emphasize the urgency that we both feel. His testimony has been submitted for the record, but I'd like to share a few of his words with you now.

"Since its inception, a fundamental principle of our government has been to respond to the needs of people. Now a major scientific breakthrough has given us the opportunity to uphold another principle of our government to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. I'm referring, of course, to the recent discovery of the miraculous potential of stem cells.

"Now, those of us who are privileged to testify before our representatives, though suffering individually from specific conditions, have the unique opportunity to speak on behalf of the entire population, both at home and in every corner of the global village who suffer from almost every conceivable form of debilitation.

"Thank you. Christopher."

The NIH is ready. Extensive, meticulous guidelines for stem cell research have been written and approved. We urge you to not let politics interfere and needlessly delay this critical research.

For two years, I've been watching this debate. To me, this is not theoretical. There are real consequences here. As I said earlier, I don't profess to be an ethicist, but I do consider myself a good and decent man, a loving father and husband. I would not claim any benefit that I believe was made possible by harm done to another person. That is not the reality here. I'm not a political scientist either, but I have an immigrant's love for my country and I'm humbled to participate in this process. I see a need for our politicians to act on our behalf and for them and others not to politicize a wonderful medical advance.

So that is what I ask of the people who are touched by this issue, those afflicted and affected, every patient, as well as every mother, father, brother, sister, grandchild, uncle, aunt, teacher, coach, friend or neighborhood of a person with Parkinson's, in addition to the even wider circle of those with related illnesses and their families and loved ones, which ultimately may include every person in this country. You all have a stake in the outcome.

I ask those of you who are watching today to join in the conversation, study the record, visit the NIH Web site, add your voice. These good men and women are your representatives. Ask them to tell you where they stand. I'm confident that the vast majority of you would want this research funded, and quickly. I see in these cells a chance for a medical miracle. The government has done its work. We ask you now to release our tax dollars so the scientists can do theirs.

Thank you.

SPECTER: Well, thank you very much, Mr. Fox.

HEMMER: Michael J. Fox, the well-known Hollywood actor there testifying there in front of a Senate committee in Washington. This regarding the issue of stem cell research. It is well known that Michael J. Fox does suffer from the effects of Parkinson's disease. He's making his case for more study there today.

However, a controversial issue. With more on that, here is Andria.

ANDRIA HALL, CNN ANCHOR: It is controversial. It is touchy, it is a touch subject, and it is one that Eileen O'Connor, who is standing by live now in Washington, can actually explain to us.

Eileen, what are the details surrounding the research and why so many people are adamantly against it?

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you have to know, first of all, what a stem cell is. And a stem cell is a cell that can differentiate into any type of body tissue. And so what doctors are hoping to do is to coax these stem cells into creating an unlimited source of spare parts for the body.

In Michael J. Fox's case, that could help him replace the damaged nerve cells in his brain that are causing the Parkinson's disease. In Christopher Reeve's case, he's hoping that it could repair spinal cord injuries by regenerating a new spinal cord for those who have a damaged one.

But the problem is, the controversy lies with where stem cells come from. And the ones that are most useful, according to medical researchers, that can differentiate into any type of tissue, is -- do come from aborted fetal tissue, aborted human embryos, or from human embryos that have been frozen and are set to be discarded from in vitro fertilization clinics.

The new NIH guidelines that are being debated there today in the Senate would allow federally funded researchers to actually use stem cells extracted by another company from these frozen embryos that were set to be discarded from the in vitro fertilization clinics.

Now, mainly people who -- critics on the other side who are mostly pro-life advocates say that they believe that this is tantamount to taking one life for another, and they believe there are other sources of stem cells that research should be done on. For instance, adult stem cells. Everyone of us also has stem cells in our organs. Researchers, though, say there may not be an abundance of those, enough to find these cures -- Andria.

HALL: Eileen, in Europe, I know that the stem cell research is a lot further along than here in this country because of their own guidelines or lack of them, as stringent as they are here in the U.S. What can you tell us about the research that's going on there and the prominence of something breaking through soon?

O'CONNOR: Well, they are farther ahead on fetal tissue research. Even in the former Soviet Union, they were conducting fetal tissue research for a very long time, mainly because abortion is not a hotly debated topic in some of those countries. And -- but so far, there still has not been the types of breakthroughs that people have seen perhaps here in the United States where there is so much more money that can be funded in, from the government, from private companies, into this kind of research -- Andria.




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