Actor Christopher Reeve offered praise for researchers and sharp criticism of American policymakers as he urged students to support embryonic stem cell research during a talk at the School of Medicine Thursday.
A packed auditorium of students, faculty and community members welcomed Reeve, who has become a stem cell advocate since he became paralyzed in a 1995 horse-riding accident. Reeve’s speech was part of the year-end meeting for the Yale Stem Cell Interest Group.
Reeve discussed the history of stem cell research, citing the first isolation of the embryonic stem cell in 1998 by James Thompson and his colleagues at the University of Wisconsin. Reeve also spoke about decisions by American politicians regarding funding for research of the embryonic stem cell.
“The U.K. allotted 40 million pounds for research,” he said, “Other countries today are leading the work in embryonic stem cell research. The U.K., Israel, Sweden, Singapore, China — these are our allies and our friends. They are no less moral than we are.”
Under current U.S. policy, scientists can research on cells generated from existing stem cell lines, but cannot generate new stem cell lines from embryonic tissue.
Reeve said he believes the relevance of embryonic stem cell research was buried under the heading of human cloning and therefore misunderstood by the public — negatively effecting U.S. policy. Reeve compared current efforts to earn funding for research from the National Institutes of Health to the early struggles of the AIDS movement.
He suggested that the current laws are to his and every other individual’s disadvantage.
“I could go to England, be cured, come back and be arrested at the airport,” he said. “To say that we should just work on adult stem cells because we’ll eventually get there, that’s not fair to people with diseases like ALS because that is a death sentence.”
Reeve said he is encouraged by the interest of young students in a dynamic medical field.
“Yale is one of few universities that has a special interest group; I think it’s fantastic,” he said, “It’s going to come down to far-sighted people and far-thinking people to make sure this golden opportunity doesn’t slip away.”
Rajesh Rao MED ’05 founded the Yale Stem Cell Interest Group last May with only 15 members.
“The group was formed in an effort to draw more attention to the field,” Rao said.
Today, the group boasts 150 members. Rao said one of the main functions of the group is to educate students on careers available to them in stem cell research.
Neurology professor Jeffery Kocsis commended the group for its service to students.
“The group in terms of meetings and seminars has been very helpful and has brought together people ranging from clergy to eminent scholars in the field. Even basic questions are answered like, ‘What is a stem cell?'”
Reeve encouraged Yale students to save the world in their own way, even if that means studying in other countries where research is more advanced.
“If you really want to help people, you go where that work can be done,” he said. “I sit here frustrated by today’s public policy, but I’m very hopeful about tomorrow — so go do it!”