There are so many fascinating diabetes- and health-related events taking place all around the country; I wish I could go to them all! But thankfully, sometimes I can cover them in absentia here at the 'Mine with a little help from my friends.
A guest post by Allison Blass
Last week, I was invited to attend the New York Stem Cell Foundation's panel entitled "Stem Cell Research & Diabetes: Realizing the Promise." As you can imagine, I was intrigued to hear what the illustrious panel of stem cell and diabetes experts would present, given the fact that we are constantly bombarded by "diabetes cured in mice!" articles again and again... and again.
The panel included Gary Hall, Jr. (Olympic gold-medal winning swimmer and type 1 diabetic), Kevin Eggan, Ph.D. (NYSCF Chief Scientific Officer and Assistant Professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at Harvard), Alan Lewis, Ph.D. (the newest President and CEO of JDRF), Allen Spiegel, MD (Dean of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at Yeshiva University, and former Director of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases at the NIH - whew!) and finally, Susan Solomon, JD (CEO of the NYSCF and mom of a type 1 diabetic). It was moderated by Kurt Anderson, co-creator and host of Studio 360 on WNYC — and a long-time type 1 diabetic himself.
Having a moderator who actually is a type 1 diabetic was a breath of fresh air. The basic questions about what diabetes is and what stem cells are were asked, but they were asked in a way that did not have any underlying false assumptions, like "Aren't type 1 diabetics all kids?"
After the proper introduction of all the panelists, getting to know who they were and their respective expertise (I will offer Google to you at this time, in order to save space), Kurt and the panelists discussed various ways that stem cell research affects the diabetes community.
Here are some highlights:
- The federal government's involvement is critical, but it will not happen overnight based solely on President Obama's signature on the executive order to allow federal funding for work on embryonic stem cells. Susan Soloman explained that a few years ago, something called the Dickey-Wicker amendment was passed, which "prohibits the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from using appropriated funds for the creation of human embryos for research purposes or for research in which human embryos are destroyed." This bill was passed in 1996, during the Clinton Administration, and has been renewed every year. Despite Obama's executive order, the Dickey-Wicker amendment will remain an obstacle until it is overturned. Allen Spiegel noted that it prohibits not just the destruction of embryos, but anything to do with human embryos in research.
- A fundamental issue, says Kevin Eggan, is that the scientists have never been given access to mass quantities of islet cells to work with. Therefore, we (all of us) have a very limited understanding of why and how islet cells get sick, or how you could stop it. The immune system is an enormous obstacle for people with type 1 diabetes, and unfortunately, you can't study islet cells in a cadaver (because they don't do anything), or in people with diabetes (because they're already not functioning, so that doesn't help) or in people without diabetes (because they're pretty attached to their perfectly normal islet cells). The desire to create a limitless quantity of islet cells out of embryonic stem cells is not just for purposes of transplanting them into humans, but also to study how diabetes works and how it could be cured in hundreds of different scenarios without putting anyone at risk.
- Kevin Eggan stated that he thinks the first stem cell therapy "won't be cells." Hmm? The first therapy, he surmised, could possibly be in the form of drugs that work better because of what we learn through stem cell research. He used the example of islet cells being a poor kid at school getting beat up by the big bad immune system. "Then we could put in different chemicals," he said, "to see which one breaks up the fight. We could find a cure — or something like it — through trial and investigation using mass quantities of islet cells that are only made possible through the availability of stem cells."
- What about pharma companies? Alan Lewis, JDRF's newest president and former CEO of NovoCell, had a positive theory for how our "friendly foes" will handle this topic. "There is a lot of intrigue from big pharma," he said, adding that Pfizer is already interested in regenerative medicine. Lewis believes stem cell research is the future of medicine and that pharmaceuticals will find a way to tap into it as a money-maker — which means that we, the patients who put the money in their pockets, will hopefully not need to worry about any backdoor blocking. Indeed, production and distribution of stem cells will have to come from someone, someday.
- When will this all happen? The number that was thrown around was a 12-15 year timeframe. But I thank Alan Lewis, who finally broke down the JDRF mantra of "5 more years" when he said: "There's a danger in projecting a time, so I'm not going to volunteer that." Well said. Allen Spiegel later added, "This isn't rocket science. It's a lot harder."
- One question stood out from the audience Q & A that followed: "What can we do to help?" It's not a question we usually hear, so I wanted to share the experts' answer: Encourage science. Stem cell research has been the black sheep in this country for so long that we are going to lose our researchers, they said. So please encourage fellows to apply to the New York Stem Cell Foundation, which privately funds researchers. We need people in the labs to do this important work!
Please visit the New York Stem Cell Foundation website for more information on their activities as well as more information about the panel.
Also, the JDRF is calling for your support in commenting on the new draft NIH guidelines for embryonic stem cell research (they're currently gathering public comments). If you're interested in supporting this effort, click here.
[Editor's Note: If you're not a supporter of stem cell research, we respect your opinion. Likewise, please be respectful of others in your comments here. Thank you!]