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Actor is center stage at stem cell event

Actor Michael J. Fox told hundreds of University of South Florida students Tuesday that he can respect people who oppose stem cell research for ethical reasons.

But he said President Bush is not one of those people.

Fox, who came to Tampa with Democratic leaders to push for stem cell research, said Bush's policy is hypocritical. Condemning the research as unethical, but allowing some of it to proceed under strict limits, makes no sense to Fox.

"You can do this a little bit, just don't tell the neighbors," he said of Bush's position.

Research on embryonic stem cells could save millions of lives, he told the crowd of about 500. Fox, who suffers from Parkinson's, said stem cell research can help with that disease as well as other conditions, such as spinal injuries.

"That could be any one of us," he said. "This will benefit humanity in ways that are incalculable. We have the opportunity to do some amazing things."

Many of the USF students in Fox's audience weren't even born when Fox first became famous on Family Ties in 1982. They may have been in diapers when Back to the Future made him a megastar.

But thanks to the magic of reruns, some of the students told Fox about their favorite episodes. One told him that hearing that Fox had Parkinson's was almost like hearing about a member of her own family.

Another woman thanked Fox for becoming the nation's most famous advocate for fighting the disease. She's had Parkinson's for 11 years.

Audience members also got a science lesson in stem cells from a USF professor, Dr. Juan Sanchez-Ramos, who explained how the embryonic cells hold promise because they can have the capacity to become any type of cell _ nerve, muscle, blood. That means they might one day help to cure a broad array of diseases.

Opponents of stem cell research say it's wrong to use cells from a fertilized embryo, destroying it in the process. They compare it to abortion. Advocates say stem cells used in research are leftover from in-vitro fertilization attempts and would be destroyed anyway.

Faye Armitage, a Jacksonville resident whose 14-year-old son, Jason, was paralyzed in a soccer accident at age 7, told the crowd of her hopes that stem cell research could one day help him.

But Fox was the main event.

After Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 1991, he hid the disease from TV cameras for seven years. He put his hands in his pockets, he said Tuesday. He moved a lot, "goofed around" on the set to cover the involuntary movements.

"You just keep moving and you don't get caught," he said.

Fox first knew something was wrong when his left pinky began to twitch. But as the disease progressed, both the Parkinson's and the side effects of his medication became harder to hide.

"It was spinning plates," he said.

When he finally went public in 1998, it was a huge relief. He also learned something else.

"I have a whole new respect for what the relationship is" between him and his fans, he said. "It's not just a business relationship. It's something deeper."

He gave a special thank you to other Parkinson's patients.

"The friendship and support I've gotten from all of you is life-changing," he said.

Fox spoke briefly but energetically Tuesday, and rolling in his left foot and shaking in his left hand became more apparent toward the end of the event. Still, he stayed to shake hands, sign copies of his book and pose for photos with fans.

He was feeling pretty good, he said as he walked out. He has been spending a lot of time with his family. "I'm feeling all right," he said. "Better than I thought I would be."