During his two-decade career as one of America's most loved actors, Michael J. Fox starred in the TV hits Family Ties and Spin City, as well as several motion pictures, including The American President, Bright Lights Big City, and the blockbuster Back to the Future trilogy. Four years ago, he took on a new role, as founder of the nonprofit Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. The organization has donated more than $35 million to fund research aimed at finding a cure for the degenerative brain disease. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991.
On May 8, Fox presented an award to former First Lady Nancy Reagan at a gala fund-raiser for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in Beverly Hills, Calif. At the event, Reagan reiterated her opposition to federal restrictions that limit research on embryonic stem cells -- the highly versatile, but controversial, cells that many scientists believe may someday be used to cure diseases such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's. Prior to presenting Reagan with her award, Fox sat down with BusinessWeek Los Angeles Correspondent Arlene Weintraub to discuss the potential -- and the politics -- of embryonic stem cells. Edited excerpts from their conversation follow:
Q: How promising do you feel embryonic stem cells might be in the fight to find a cure for Parkinson's disease?
A:Tremendously promising. We know these cells can produce neurons that make dopamine [which is deficient in patients with the disease]. We also know that dealing with the brain is tricky. You've got to get in there without causing any damage and then figure out how to get the cells to thrive there.
It presents a lot of problems. Yet embryonic stem cells are so promising that it's hard to understand the hesitation people have with studying them.
Q: The religious right continues to speak out against experimental cloning techniques that might be used to harvest stem cells. They fear the same technology could be abused, perhaps in an attempt to clone babies. The U.S. House of Representatives even passed a bill that proposed criminalizing such research. As a patient, how do you respond when you hear news like this?
A:It's ridiculous. It's so self-defeating for those of us with Parkinson's and other degenerative diseases. We don't want to create Frankenstein or clone our Uncle Charlie so we can play poker with him again. It's nuts. We just want to save lives.
If the government were to allow funding for embryonic stem-cell research, it could use its own power of oversight to apply standards to the research that people will feel comfortable with. The research will happen anyway. But it will happen in other countries now, and we won't have as much input.
Q: How might Nancy Reagan speaking out in favor of stem-cell research now influence the debate?
A:It's hugely important. She's viewed as a conservative, but her support of stem cell research will help people to look beyond politics. She has a lot on her plate -- she could have just sat this out. She'll help drive home the point that this is not an "issue." It's a potential breakthrough that could have a huge impact on people's lives.
Q: What do you sense the current attitude in Washington is vis-à-vis stem-cell research?
A:It's hard to get them to focus, with everything that's going on in the world right now. But I do think it's trending positively. This is all about patients and their families. All those people in Washington can trace this issue back to someone in their family who has an illness that might be affected by this research.
I believe it was a 19th-century scientist who said there are three stages of every breakthrough: First, everyone thinks you're crazy. Then the church comes out against you. Then it changes the world. We're in stage two. But I don't see any backsliding in momentum.
Q: Do you believe enough private funding is out there to push stem-cell research forward?
A:No. The science is way ahead of the money. We sit and look back at 2001, when the President banned all funding for research on everything but a few cell lines, and we think, that's three years -- gone.
Our foundation is trying to fill that void. But it's like the old cliché, the government can throw more money at something by accident than we could on purpose.
Q: Are other types of research also of interest to you and your foundation?
A:Yes. We would love to find a genetic marker for Parkinson's disease. By the time Parkinson's is diagnosed in most patients, 80% of dopamine-producing cells are dead. If we could find a marker that would identify the disease when only 5% of those cells are lost, then doctors could get in and start treating it, and that would almost be as good as a cure.
It might also be possible to put different types of cells into the brain to replace what's dying. We have to be open-minded and broaden our approach beyond stem cells.
Q: Overall, how confident are you that science is close to finding cures for Parkinson's and other degenerative diseases?
A:It's easy to look at the research and see that these problems will be solved, though it may take some years. Some people like to sit back smugly and ask me, "How do you know that embryonic stem cells will work?" I don't know. That's why we call it "science." It's going to be a journey of 1,000 miles. The steps we're taking now are baby steps. But we'll go nowhere without them.