Stem Cell Research Could Lead to Endless Islets - But Ethics Issues Cause Debate in Washington

| Apr 1, 1999

The outcome of the contentious stem cell research debate in Washington will influence the future of islet transplantation.

Politicians and diabetes advocates are arguing over using federal money to support research on stem cells. The Juvenile Diabetes Foundation (JDF) and supporting scientists say the research could lead to a supply of islets for transplantation, thus advancing the cure for diabetes. Some politicians say that work on stem cells is equivalent to work on embryos, which denies the dignity of human life.

Congress has placed a ban on taxpayer money going to research on human embryos. The JDF and others want Congress to agree with them that work on stem cells is not the same as work on embryos, and should be funded by Washington.

The Science of Stem Cells

Stem cells are young cells that have not yet developed a specific function; they can be turned into different body cells, researchers hope. This includes insulin-producing islets. Once scientists figure out how to make an islet from a stem cell, they can then reproduce them, providing an abundant supply of islets for transplanting into people with diabetes.

Proposed stem cell research involves a component that cannot be used to "grow" another human being, according to Bill Schmidt, JDF director of legislative affairs.

After a human egg is fertilized, but before it becomes implanted in the uterus, a blastocyst is created. At the blastocyst stage, cells are still undifferentiated, meaning they have no specific purposes. From a blastocyst scientists (through private, not federal, funding) have separated two types of stem cells: totipotent cells and pluripotent cells. Totipotent cells can be grown into entire human beings. Pluripotent cells cannot be grown into entire human beings. Schmidt reports that only pluripotent cells have been used, thus eliminating any possible link to human cloning. The United States has outlawed human cloning for five years, and 19 other countries have completely banned human cloning.

The Ethics of Stem Cells

Even without the link to cloning, many other ethical debates surround stem cell research.

The supply of stem cells for study usually comes from in vitro fertilization clinics or aborted fetuses. Because dead fetuses must be used to attain stem cells, many in the anti-abortion movement have voiced opposition to federal money for stem cell research.

Washington Hears Testimony

In January, the Senate Appropriations Committee listened to both sides testify. Representing the JDF was Doug Melton, PhD, of Harvard, and one of the main researchers in the JDF-Harvard collaboration for islet transplantation. Melton spoke of the potential for a diabetes cure, then addressed ethical concerns.

"The 1994 Human Embryo Research Panel, which included scientists and ethicists, studied the ethical issues raised by this type of research and concluded that stem cell research involving 'preimplantation' human embryos is acceptable for federal funding."

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared recently that work with pluripotent stem cells could be federally sanctioned, ruling that these pluripotent cells are not part of an embryo, but those performing the research cannot use federal money to get a supply of stem cells from abortion or fertilization clinics.

In response, 70 members of Congress wrote to HHS, calling this ruling inappropriate. Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., called the decision one that treats humans as "property to be manipulated and destroyed."

The JDF continues to advocate stem cell research, while acknowledging that ethical considerations must be part of the plan. Melton expressed JDF's opinion in his testimony.

"We feel that appropriate safeguards can and should be established to ensure that this important research can be conducted using federal funding."

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Categories: Diabetes, Government & Policy, Insulin, Islet & Pancreas Transplant


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