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Stem-Cell Research Of Particular Interest In Triangle

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RALEIGH, N.C. — At the Democratic National Convention Tuesday night, the son of former Republican President Ronald Reagan talked about stem cell research -- an issue opposed by the Bush Administration.

It also is an issue that hits home with many in the Triangle, including patients and researchers.

Reagan had some harsh words for the politicians who oppose stem-cell research. He became an active supporter of it after his father was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease.

The Triangle is a leader in stem-cell research. Work being done right here could lead to a cure for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's -- even heart and liver disease.

Jim Jablonski, 61, exercises every day, despite the fact he has Parkinson's Disease. He always has kept a positive attitude since he was diagnosed 11 years ago.

Coordinator of the Wake County Parkinson's support group, Jablonski said more than 1,000 people in Wake County are coping with the disease.

"I'm a positive thinker," he said. "So it was like: 'So what?' Life's got to go on.

"I didn't look at it as a death note. I looked at it as a challenge of how I can keep on living."

Stem-cell research is under the political microscope. President George W. Bush has ordered sharp restrictions on federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.

Some of the tiny cells grow in Dr. Frank Longo's University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lab. When an egg is fertilized, it begins dividing into cells. Those initial cells are stem cells.

"Early on, those stem cells can become any type of cell and any organ in the body," Longo said.

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They can become a type of human repair kit, if only scientists can figure out how to manipulate them. The goal of research is to make stem cells grow into heart cells, liver cells, even brain cells.

The controversy comes when researchers take stem cells from unused human embryos.

"Once you have the sperm and the egg, and you have created the embryo, then you have to deal with the 'respect life' situation," said Frank Morock, of the Raleigh Catholic Diocese. "That is a human being who deserves to have the respect any human being has."

President Bush's decision to ban federal funding for human stem-cell research is impacting a lot of labs in the Triangle. Longo's lab is getting around that by using mouse cells.

The UNC lab is one of several research sites working for an Alzheimer's cure. Duke is another.

Dr. Don Schmechel, of Duke, treats Alzheimer's patients. His work load is growing as baby boomers age. Already five million Americans have the disease.

"We're facing this huge growing burden of human disease," said Schmechel. "It's going to just overwhelm this country in the next few decades."

That serves as motivation for Triangle researchers to keep working under the close scrutiny of the American public -- and for patients who will benefit from the research to hold out hope.

Two pills and an experimental patch keep Jablonski's symptoms under control during the day. But he believes stem-cell research could hold the key to a cure.

Facilities around the world are testing stem cells from cord blood and bone marrow. But it is research with embryos that holds the most promise -- and controversy.

The Bush Administration's decision to restrict funding for embryonic stem-cell research has come under fire in the political arena. And from people like Jablonski, who feel time is being wasted.

"If you can't accelerate stem-cell research, it might take 30 or 40 years for something to happen," Jablonski said. "But with federal funding, who knows? Maybe something could happen next year."

Reagan told delegates Tuesday night that voters in November have a choice between reason and ignorance.

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