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Christopher Reeve: Action Hero

Robert Goldberg, Ph.D.
October 18, 2004

Senator Kerry has occasionally invoked Christopher Reeve, the late, paralyzed actor, in calling for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It is true the late action hero was a passionate advocate of such research, but he was much more than a one-trick-pony. Reeve's balanced, comprehensive approach to improving treatment of paralysis, one that involved rather than demonized private drug companies, was a model that those who seek to walk in his shoes ought to emulate.

First and foremost, Christopher Reeve was a realist. He hoped to walk again, and no one fought with more determination to do so. But he also knew that even increased stem cell research was not a guarantee of a cure. Though his faith in science never wavered, in an interview with New Mobility magazine in November 2002 Reeve said "we don't know for sure that therapeutic cloning is 'the magic bullet.' It may or may not be - it's one of the weapons in the arsenal, it's one of the approaches. . . ."

Hence he sought to promote improved treatment of paralytics and encourage non-stem-cell-based research. His advocacy and practice of rigorous exercise, maintenance of bone density, and electrical stimulation of long-dead nerve cells paid off in 2000, when Reeve shocked the medical establishment by regaining the use of his finger on command and eventually regaining feeling throughout his body. His example showed that paralysis could be a temporary, not a permanent, condition, and thereby revolutionized medical thinking.

Reeve also worked through his Christopher Reeve Foundation to improve the quality of life of today's paralytics. He worked to improve transportation, assisted living and other activities to improve mobility, and he persuaded insurance companies and HMOs to offer coverage to newer medicines and devices that cost-effectively reduce depression and increase independence.

Finally, Reeve was an enthusiastic supporter of private biotechnology and medical device companies. He enrolled in the clinical trials of many companies and was an early adopter of technologies by companies like Synapse Biomedical, which developed a product that allowed him to breath without a ventilator. He used his stardom to encourage others to enroll in drug trials, to raise capital and to push drug companies to take risks on compounds they might otherwise shelve because they were marginally profitable.

Reeve was criticized for working closely with private companies that were investing in treatments for spinal cord injuries and other traumatic neurodegenerative conditions. He never bashed drug companies for price gouging or, like many activists or politicians these days, accused them of putting profits over people. Far from accusing companies of ripping off taxpayers for using government research to support their own stem cell activities or calling for price controls, he encouraged collaboration.

For this stance, and despite the fact that Reeve never took a dime from any drug company, he was criticized as a "mouthpiece for the biotech industry." To be sure, many of these attacks came from people who opposed Mr. Reeve's support of embryonic stem cell research. But they also came from people who naively believe that government funding alone could and should be the sole source of all new treatments, or that companies should be taxed or penalized for working with government researchers.

In the New Mobility magazine interview, Reeve responded to those critics in replying to a question about where the money for future research on paralysis will come from. Noting the while the National Institutes of Health budget had doubled, "that doesn't even count money that's available in the private sector and foundations and venture capitalists and pharmaceutical companies, etc."

Reeve went on to say: "One of the things we're going to have to do with the private sector, though - and this is why it is absolute proof that I'm not the lackey or whatever they called it, the mouthpiece of biotech, because I have to argue with these guys all the time - is convince the pharmaceutical companies that they will profit if people are cured. They're worried. I heard one guy make an argument that, "Well, we make a lot of money off the shots that diabetics have to give themselves every day. And now if diabetes is cured, what happens to that revenue source? So, I'm saying, listen, just do the work, think about the fact that you're a member of the human race yourself, then do the right thing, and profits will follow."

Christopher Reeve could have easily used his star power as the Man of Steel to beat up on drug companies or simply seek more federal money for stem cell research. Instead, he sought to turn the torrent of private capital towards his own quest for cures and better care. The politicians that will seek to wrap themselves in the cape of his crusade could learn a thing or two from how fully Mr. Reeve gave of himself so that others in his position could both hope and lead healthier lives.

Robert Goldberg is Director of the Center for Medical Progress at the Manhattan Institute.

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