Senator Misleads on Stem Cell Research and Juvenile Diabetes in Debate

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Apr 10, 2007   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Senator Misleads on Stem Cell Research and Juvenile Diabetes in Debate Email this article
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by Steven Ertelt Editor
April 10
, 2007

Washington, DC ( — During the Senate debate on a bill to force taxpayers to fund embryonic stem cell research, Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, mislead viewers on how stem cell research has affected those who have juvenile diabetes.

Harkin talked about a young teenager who has to give herself numerous insulin shots to deal with the effects of the disease.

He claimed that funding for embryonic stem cell research is necessary to find a cure for juvenile diabetes saying that the use of adult stem cells hasn’t helped patients who have it.

"Scientists have known about adult stem cells for 40 years and they still haven’t brought about a cure for juvenile diabetes," he said.

In fact, adult stem cells have provided the most hope for patients suffering from the disease.

The most promising new treatment for juvenile diabetes in recent years is the “Edmonton protocol,” using adult pancreatic islet cells from adult cadavers.

According to an Atlanta Journal Constitution report in June 2003, “of the 250 patients who have received the newest version of the transplant, more than 80 percent have been free from insulin shots or insulin pumps for more than a year.”

Despite the successes, there is an insufficient volume of islet cells to treat all patients in need as each successful transplant may require cells from two or three cadavers. But these problems are being solved, without use of embryonic stem cells.

In August 2004, scientists from the University of Toronto say they may have discovered adult stem cells in the pancreas could offer hope for diabetics who take insulin shots to make up for defective cells.
Found in the pancreas of mice, they could be capable of creating insulin-producing beta cells. Those cells can compensate for defective pancreatic islets, which are comprised mostly of beta cells.

The islets produce insulin that regulates a person’s blood sugar level.

"Pancreatic stem cells could provide a plentiful supply of beta cells for transplant treatments," the researchers said in a statement.

According to the study, published in the August 22 edition of the medical journal Nature Biotechnology, the researchers are now conducting further reviews to ensure that the cells they found are adult stem cells and not just precursor cells that simply give rise to the development of the pancreas.

Stem cells can renew themselves over the entire life of the person or animal and can produce varied cell types, such as the islet cells diabetes patients need.

Researchers at the University of Alberta have been transplanting the insulin-making islet cells into patients and helping them shed their dependence on the insulin shots. However, the research relies on harvesting the islet cells from human cadavers and the supply of the cells fluctuates significantly.

The discovery of adult stem cells that can create a limitless supply of islets could prove revolutionary.

At the same time, embryonic stem cells have produced disappointing results for juvenile diabetes.

According to a 2004 report in the journal Diabetologia, researchers from the University of Calgary found that the insulin-producing cells derived from embryonic stem cells are not the “beta cells” needed to reverse diabetes. While the cells produced some insulin, they did not do so in response to changes in glucose levels; when placed in mice they did not reverse diabetes but formed tumors.

Another article published in Science in 2001 showed that when scientists used embryonic stem cells in animals, they failed. When placed in animals the cells provided no benefit, and all the animals died of diabetes.