After Reagan’s death from Alzheimer’s disease, the media saw a chance to hurt Republicans by emphasizing differences between Nancy Reagan and President Bush on the issue of medical research using human stem cells. Bush opposes research using stem cells from created or aborted human embryos while Nancy Reagan supports it. Such a process involves destroying the human embryos. Laura Bush, whose father died from Alzheimer’s, said that while she admired Nancy Reagan’s devotion to former President Reagan, she could not back her call for embryonic stem cell research.
Less attention has been paid to Reagan’s son, Michael, who notes that the idea that embryonic stem cell research will help victims of Alzheimer’s has been exposed as grossly misleading by Ronald D.G. McKay, a stem cell researcher at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. On why this line is being pushed in the media, McKay told Washington Post reporter Rick Weiss: “People need a fairy tale. Maybe that’s unfair, but they need a story line that’s relatively simple to understand.” Weiss added, “It is a distortion that some admit is not being aggressively corrected by scientists.” The Weiss story ran in the Post on June 10.
It is a fairy tale because of the nature of the disease, which affects the whole brain. Ann Harding of The Scientist magazine notes that, “?most in the field admit it’s highly unlikely that a stem cell transplant could cure or even treat Alzheimer’s.” She quoted Donald L. Price, director of the Alzheimer’s Research Center at Johns Hopkins, as saying, “Alzheimer’s is a tough target for this sort of thing because it is widespread and it involves so many different types of neurons.”
Despite the revelation about this “fairy tale,” 58 members of the U.S. Senate took advantage of Reagan’s death to send a letter asking President Bush to relax federal restrictions on stem cell research. The letter was signed by 43 Democrats, the Senate’s one independent and 14 Republicans.
The misplaced focus on stem cells has kept the media from discussing a real issue ?the under-funding of Alzheimer’s compared to other diseases. The FAIR Foundation has long criticized what it calls “exorbitant” funding on AIDS. In response, the NIH has claimed that some of its AIDS research benefits a wide spectrum of non-AIDS disease research. The position of the FAIR Foundation is that all diseases, including the 16 that kill more Americans than AIDS, “do not want to live off the crumbs of AIDS research.” The foundation adds, “They want the NIH studying their diseases with fair and equitable research allocations.”
The FAIR Foundation examined federal spending on AIDS versus Alzheimer’s. It found that 53,679 died of Alzheimer’s disease in 2001, which is six times the number reported for AIDS. It says there are four million Americans with Alzheimer’s compared to about half-a-million with AIDS. And yet the NIH is spending only $161 on each patient with Alzheimer’s versus $5,500 on each patient with AIDS. Rather than push a fairy tale about stem cells and Alzheimer’s, the media should publish cold, hard facts about where all the money is going.