On Sunday, March 6, 2016, Nancy Reagan passed away at the age of 94. Best known for her role as First Lady, Mrs. Reagan was so much more: a devoted wife and key advisor, a fashion icon and an anti-drug champion. In 1982, she launched her famous “Just Say No” campaign against drug abuse. She travelled over 250,000 miles raising awareness of the problem of illegal narcotics and authored numerous guest articles in leading publications. Perhaps less known, Mrs. Reagan was also a formidable advocate for medical research.

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(Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

On the heels of Ronald Reagan’s 1994 Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis, Nancy Reagan began another public campaign. This time she spoke out in favor of biomedical research into brain diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Along with her husband, Mrs. Reagan founded the Ronald and Nancy Reagan Research Institute at the Alzheimer’s Association. The Institute funded important biomedical research focused on understanding and treating Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s is a complicated disease that has required the collaboration of many scientists and the utilization of many scientific resources, including mice, stem cells and non-human primates.

Watching her husband suffer from incapacitating Alzheimer’s complications, Mrs. Reagan searched for information on a possible treatment for the disease. Her findings led to her conviction that stem cell research could lead to meaningful breakthroughs. Despite critics, she went public with her support of stem cell research, declaring, “I don’t see how we can turn our backs on this.”

9/15/1982 Nancy Reagan during a reception marking the first edition of the newspaper USA Today at the Capitol Mall in Washington DC

(Photo courtesy Ronald Reagan Library)

Then-President George W. Bush strongly opposed the use of stem cells, as some of these cells came from embryos donated by fertility clinics. Mrs. Reagan wrote to him and her letter contributed to President Bush’s decision to compromise, allowing federal funds to be used for research with existing stem cell lines.

Although she will be remembered for her many contributions to the world, Nancy Reagan’s work as a science advocate cannot be overlooked. When Alzheimer’s disease touched her family, she fought it vigorously. The animal research she helped to fund is helping us get closer to a cure for the dreaded neurological disease affecting more than 5 million people in the U.S. Of all Mrs. Reagan’s notable life accomplishments, perhaps her most lasting legacy is shedding light on Alzheimer’s – a disease that has and continues to afflict so many.

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