No Easy Answers

Supervising Stem Cell Biologist Lesley Young holds up an ampule which stores stem cells, at the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control in Potters Bar, England, Wednesday May 19, 2004.
AP Photo/Richard Lewis

Roy Duhon loves feeding his birds. But, it is an activity that gets harder with each passing day.

A much decorated Air Force Colonel and engineer, Duhon was diagnosed at age of 51 with Alzheimer's disease. Four years ago, CBS News Sunday Morning visited Duhon and his wife Susan for a story about the disease.

The decline in his health is obvious. In spite of meticulous care and the best available medicines, Susan Duhon is watching her husband ebb away.
"Somedays, we get glimpses of him," says Susan Duhon. "Most of the time, it's the disease."

Last month, former first lady Nancy Reagan pleaded with George W. Bush to lift the three-year-old ban that limits federal funding for embryonic stem cell research--crossing party lines and reopening an angry, polarizing debate that is only likely to build.

Her husband, former President Ronald Reagan, suffered from Alzheimer's disease before he died.

"There are so many diseases that can be cured, or at least helped, we've lost so much time already," she once stated. "I can't bear to lose anymore."
Steven Ferris, the head of the Alzheimer's Disease Center at New York University, says Alzheimer's disease, which already afflicts 4 to 5 million Americans, will only get worse as the "Baby Boomers" age.

"Thirty to 50 years from now, we're going to have 12 to 15 million Americans with Alzheimer's disease," Ferris explains.

Some scientists say stem cell research is an avenue that should be explored to treat diseases such as Alzheimer's.

Stem cells are like blank slates. In the laboratory, scientists are working to coax them into more advanced cells like heart, liver and nerve cells -- healthy cells that could replace those damaged by disease. Stem cells can be found in adults, in umbilical cord blood, but also in human embryos. It is the embryos that are at the center of the controversy.

Human embryos that sit frozen in fertility clinics around the country could be used, according to researchers, to save lives. But others say using developing human embryos for research isn't saving life. They say it's murder.

During the summer of 2001, Congress listened to heated testimony about embryonic stem cell research. By August of that year, President Bush announced that no new embryos could be used to create new stem cells.

"I have concluded that we should allow federal funds to be used for research on these existing stem cell lines, where the life or death decision has already been made," Bush stated.

President Bush appears to be holding firm on his position, which Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank, says shouldn't be changed.

"Whether it's an embryo in an eight hour phase, eight days old or whether it's an eight month old fetus, we are talking about human life," says Perkins.

Now, pro-life Senator Orrin Hatch and 200 members of Congress, many of them abortion opponents have sent a letter to President Bush asking him to release federal funding for stem cell research.

"It seems ridiculous to me when we have 400,000 fertilized eggs or eggs invitro fertilization frozen … that we just discard those eggs and let them die without using them for the benefit of mankind," says Hatch.

It all boils down to money, and who pays. Using government money, scientists can study stem cells that were created before the ban, but they say those stem cell lines are too few and of poor quality. It is why many scientists are creating their own stem cell lines using private money.

Critics don't want any money being spent on stem cell research. Not only that, says Tony Perkins, Nancy Reagan is being deceived about the promise of embryonic stem cells as a cure for Alzheimer's.

Perkins explains, "Clearly she has gone through a difficult decade as she watched her husband decline as a result of this disease. And if you're being told that this has the potential to be a cure for what you and your loved one just went through, certainly you would be promoting that."

Leading stem cell researcher Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute says it's too soon to tell what the promise of stem cell research is for the treatment of Alzheimer's.

"It's a tough disease, but because it's tough, this is something we have to get started on right away because it's going to take a long time," says Snyder.

Snyder feels he and other scientists in the field have been stymied for the past three years by Federal funding restrictions -- leaving him with a mix of emotions.

"It's a combination of sadness, frustration and probably a degree of anger that we're not moving ahead and treating the people," Snyder explains. "We could help, not today, not tomorrow, but in the next ten years or so."
The stem cell debate is a moral question that people such as ethicist Ruth Fischbach, the director for the Center for Bioethics at Columbia University, examines.

"You have the potential for life and that's very important," says Fischbach. "But, they're not equivalent when you consider that you have a live person, a child with diabetes or a person with a terrible disease. One is a potential -- a virtual person -- and the other is a real person."
But, Fishbach says, in a real way, President Bush has already given a nod for stem cell research.

For Susan Duhon, time is of the essence.

"Whatever can be done, needs to be done," says Duhon. "I have children and grandchildren."

Anthony Perkins says, "When we separate the morality from the science, that's when we get in trouble."

Dr. Evan Snyder notes, "Stem cell research is the ethical choice --doing the best we can for those we love."

Ethicist Ruth Fishbach states, "I think beliefs are fine to have and everyone should have their own beliefs, but there may come a point where your beliefs will change, given the needs that you know perceive. And the need of a child with diabetes, or a parent with Alzheimer's disease, it's very difficult to watch that suffering and not want to do something. Now, we have the potential to do something and I think people can see that there's some merit in that and some value in that. And, they have to overcome some of their resistance."

For Senator Orrin Hatch, he says, "You'd be shocked by how many pro-life people come up to me, and I'm a pro-life senator, and say, 'Senator, keep after it. We've got to worry about the living as well.'"

The debate continues.