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Stem cell promises and politics

Scientists have yet to cure any diseases with stem cells. But the excitement over the possibilities reached a fever pitch and became a hot political issue in 2004.

For all the advances in medicine, cures for some of the most devastating diseases and conditions like Alzheimer's, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries remain frustratingly elusive. Many medical scientists believe one of the greatest hopes for helping patients lies with research involving embryonic stem cells -- master cells that can develop into any tissue type.

The excitement over the promise of stem cell science reached a fever pitch this year. Some view the research, which destroys days-old human embryos, as a worthy endeavor. Others oppose it saying it takes human life.

In the last months of the election campaign, the deaths of Alzheimer's sufferer Ronald Reagan and "Superman" actor Christopher Reeve -- paralyzed in an equestrian accident -- propelled stem cell research into the political forefront. Both Reeve and Nancy Reagan were big supporters of the research.

The presidential candidates clashed over the issue. Democrat John Kerry backed federally funded research. President Bush said it should be restricted to a limited number of cell lines that he approved in 2001 -- a number many scientists say is insufficient.

In California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke ranks with his Republican party, supporting Proposition 71, which sets aside $3 billion for stem cell research in the state. Supporters said the proposition would "save lives." It won. Now, scientists and biotech companies are expected to head west -- a 21st century gold rush of sorts.

Wisconsin also announced plans to invest in embryonic stem cell research. At the same time, there was talk about efforts at the United Nations to restrict such studies.

Regardless of the controversy, the research seems here to stay. But will it really save lives?

Laboratory studies are promising, but it can be a long road from mice to people. The science didn't advance rapidly enough to save Superman. And whether it will spare lives in the future remains to be seen. But more people are now trying.