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Opening Stem Cell Lines - Crucial for Rochester?

News 8 medical reporter Elizabeth Harness reports on what it could mean for Rochester.

President-elect Barack Obama said he plans to reverse dozens of President Bush's executive orders when he takes office.

Among the list hopes to reverse is one which is near and dear to many in Rochester - federal funding and access for stem cell research.

John Testa of Irondequoit has lived with Parkinson's Disease for 14 years.

"I was young - don't know the reason for it. If they knew the reason for it, they'd be that much closer to a cure," said Testa.

What's more - John just lost his wife, Donna, in march to Lou Gehrig's disease - otherwise known as ALS. The possibility of opening new stem cell lines - including the controversial embryonic lines and increasing federal research funding is good news to John. Both Parkinson's Disease and ALS top the list of diseases for which stem cells hold great potential.

"Finally, the handcuffs are going to be taken off the scientists," said Testa.

Rochester is home to one of the top stem cell research centers in the nation. There are 40 scientists at the University of Rochester working on dozens of potential treatments. At any given time of day. labs like Dr. Steve Goldman's one are busy.

"We have a number of projects looking at the neurodegenerative diseases: Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, Huntington's disease," said Dr. Goldman.

New York has been lucky.  It is one of a handful of states which has its own state stem cell fund, but it's still not enough. Dr. Goldman said he's been working for the last eight years under a stigma.

"This line of work that we all look at as improving health, improving the human condition has somehow, I think in a very wrongful fashion, picked up a stigma that it's somehow ethically questionable," said Dr. Goldman.

The medical center's CEO, Dr. Bradford Berk, sees stem cells from an international perspective, one where the U.S. Is far behind other countries.

"Science is very international, and these stem cell lines have been made all over the world, and the rest of the world is using them," said Dr. Berk.  "We really haven't been able to use those stem cell lines, nor have we been able to make new stem cell lines."

Now, there's new hope that the work done in these labs will come to fruition faster.

"If you look at the number of papers on stem cells 8 years ago, it was probably 2,000.  Now it's probably 20,000," said Dr. Berk.  "Just imagine if during those 8 years, we'd had access to embryonic stem cells on a larger basis, it might have gone up another 50%."

While Joe Testa is pleased with the prospect, he wishes it had happened sooner - for Donna.

"Maybe if they had been open for her, they'd be open earlier, they'd be that much closer to coming up with a cure for Parkinson's Disease," said Testa.  "Maybe they would have had something that would have saved my wife's life."

John actually was one of the advocates who help start New York's stem cell fund - a fund to which the University of Rochester has submitted 50 proposals for potential funding so far in 2008.  They'll be reviewed in December.

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