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Last Updated: Monday, 11 October, 2004, 08:22 GMT 09:22 UK
Reeve: the research campaigner
By Richard Warry
BBC News Online Health staff

Christopher Reeve
Christopher Reeve campaigned for stem cell use
Being paralysed from the neck down in the prime of life might tempt some people to give up on life.

Christopher Reeve, who died on Sunday, was certainly not one of them.

The actor admitted that he briefly thought of suicide in the dark days following his appalling riding accident.

But instead, he fought a courageous battle, not just against his own paralysis, but as a tireless campaigner for medical research to find new ways to aid others in a similar position.

His was an altruistic effort to advance medical research for the benefit of those who would come after him.
Colin Blakemore
Reeve, in particular, was a high-profile advocate of the use of stem cells in research.

These are the body's master cells with the ability to become any type of tissue.

Scientists believe they will eventually be used to treat a range of medical conditions - including spinal paralysis.

Their use, however, is steeped in controversy. The most effective stem cells are believed to come from embryos, and many people have serious doubts about the morality of using tissue which they argue has the ability to become another human life.

In the US, it is not legal for federal funds to be used to finance research using embryonic stem cells created after 2001.

Reeve played a leading role in trying to get the ban lifted.

Major fundraiser

When the House of Lords permitted the use of embryonic stem cells in UK research he was delighted.

Stem cells
Stem cell use is controversial
At the time, he said he looked forward to "the beginning of an accelerated period of scientific progress that will lead to new treatments and cures for these dreaded afflictions."

The actor set up the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation in 1996 to champion the development of treatments and cures for paralysis caused by spinal cord injury and other central nervous system disorders.

It has been a major fundraiser in the field, and has awarded millions of dollars in research grants to the world's best neuroscientists.

The foundation's website explains that its raison d'etre is to "support new initiatives, take smart risks and make sure our research dollars are spent to do the most good".

The fruits of this investment have begun to become apparent. In May this year a team at the University of Miami in Florida, partly funded by the foundation, announced they had regrown nerve fibres in laboratory experiments - raising hope for new spinal cord treatments.

The foundation also pumped substantial amount of money into improving the quality of life of people with paralysis.

And Reeve was a champion of disability rights, calling on the international community to adopt a treaty on rights for people with disabilities.

In May 2002, the US government opened the National Health Promotion and Information Centre for People With Paralysis, known as the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Centre.

The centre was designed to help prevent secondary illnesses caused as a knock-on result of the disability and improve the quality of life for those living with disability.

Important figure

Professor Colin Blakemore, chief executive of the Medical Research Council, is in no doubt about Reeve's importance to the scientific community.

He told BBC News Online: "His role was very significant. He spoke with the authority of someone suffering from the condition he was campaigning for, and that added a lot of weight to the arguments in favour of medical research.

"One could argue, I suppose, that he was motivated by self-interest, but my feeling is that Christopher Reeve always realised that the likelihood of substantial progress in his lifetime was limited, and that his was an altruistic effort to advance medical research for the benefit of those who would come after him."

Professor Blakemore said Reeve exploited his celebrity status very effectively to gain the ear of influential politicians and policymakers in the US.

His profile remained so high that he was mentioned only two days ago by US Democrat leader John Kerry during his second presidential debate with President George Bush.

"My feeling is that the argument to allow experimentation on human embryo cells is now gaining pace in the US," said Professor Blakemore.

The state of California is currently considering a proposal to invest 3bn in a 10-year programme of stem cell research.

And Mr Kerry has pledged to lift the federal funding ban on embryonic stem cell research if elected.

Professor Blakemore, for one, believes that the fact that such a measure is even on the table is in large part due to the efforts of Hollywood's former Superman.




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