MICHAEL J Fox was at the centre of a political row last night after launching a push to find a cure for the illness that destroyed his Hollywood acting career.
In a series of 30-second television advertisements, Fox, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 1991, speaks in support of three Democratic Party candidates who are running for office in next month's mid-term elections, urging people to vote for them because they back stem-cell research.
Fox, 45, bares his symptoms on camera, twitching and rocking as he talks of his hopes that such research holds the key to a cure. At the end of the brief address, he appears close to tears.
"I care deeply about stem-cell research," he says in an advert backing Claire McCaskill, a Democrat standing in Missouri. "What you do in Missouri matters to millions of Americans - Americans like me."
But the commercials have opened up an ugly battle for political ground. One group branded Fox's speech "false and misleading", while conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh - who has 20 million listeners a week - accused him of "exaggerating the effects of the disease". "He is moving all around and shaking and it's purely an act... This is really shameless of Michael J Fox," he asserted. "Either he didn't take his medication, or he's acting."
However, Limbaugh's comments prompted an outcry from stem-cell research advocates and patients' groups, forcing him to acknowledge yesterday that he had caused offence.
"I will apologise to Michael J Fox, if I am wrong in characterising his behaviour on this commercial as an act," he said on air.
But he went on to express distaste that Fox's hopes for a cure should be used to earn political capital for the Democrats.
"I don't care what anybody says. It is unseemly, it is exploitative and it is downright mean to mislead people who suffer from horrible diseases that there is a cure around the corner if only Republicans could be defeated," Limbaugh complained.
Embryonic cell research is barred from receiving federal funding. Advocates say the ban inhibits the potential for revolutionary medical advances and denies hopes of a cure for millions of people with diseases such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and muscular dystrophy. Opponents say the destruction of human life for the purpose of experimentation is wrong.
In July, the president, George Bush, shot down attempts to lift the ban, saying that the practice "crosses a moral boundary".
The issue is a particularly hot potato in Missouri because of proposals to amend the state constitution to protect certain kinds of stem-cell research.
In an advert due to air last night, starring actors Patricia Heaton and Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in The Passion of the Christ, Missourians Against Human Cloning hit back at Fox's claim that opponents of the amendment wanted to "criminalise" research.
"Those claims are just false and misleading," said the group's spokeswoman, Cathy Ruse.
Meanwhile Fox's political adviser, John Rogers, branded criticism of the actor "insulting".
He declined to discuss whether the Back to the Future star had deliberately abstained from medication during the ads in order to maximise their impact, though Fox has admitted doing so in the past.
In his autobiography, the actor recalls how he went before Congress in 1999 to argue for embryonic stem-cell research and appeared without medication.
He goes on: "It seemed to me this occasion demanded that my testimony about the effects of the disease, and the urgency we as a community were feeling, be seen as well as heard."