Embryonic stem cell research has huge potential toward a cure for diabetes. OK, I said it. If you find this topic too upsetting, you can opt out now and don't bother reading the rest of this post...
Strides are being made in turning stem cells into functioning beta cells, and some really exciting news coming out of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) is the possibility of turning stem cells into beta cells without material from embryos. But as with all good news, there is a catch: this research is dependent on the knowledge and comparison studies done with embryonic stem cells. And with existing federal funding of embryonic stem cell research currently on thin ice, any research involving embryonic stem cells could come to a grinding halt at any moment.
The Promising Research Angle
At UCSD, Dr. Maike Sander and her team were recently awarded almost $5 million in federal NIH money by the Beta Cell Biology Consortium to study the generation of replacement insulin-producing beta cells from patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells.
What the heck is that? Patient-derived induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) are cells that act like embryonic stem cells, but they aren't. Scientists create these iPS cells in a lab using a patient's skin cells, with a process that turns them back into the same "blank slate" that makes an embryonic stem cells so malleable.
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This means Dr. Sander's research isn't as controversial as that using embryonic stem cells directly. Her iPS cells also do not require the poorly tolerated anti-rejection drugs used in transplants, because they come from an individual's own skin and thus aren't seen as foreign by the immune system.
Dr. Sander and her team will be developing a new protocol (a fancy science term for "plan") to turn iPS and embryonic stem cells into beta cells. This protocol will act as an "instruction manual" for scientists to turn any stem cells (embryonic or iPS) into beta cells. It takes about 7 steps for the body to turn a stem cell into a beta cell, Dr. Sander explained in a phone interview last week, and figuring out each step could take about six months to research. The last major step in this process is transforming the cell from a regular pancreas cell into a beta cell that would produce insulin; this will likely take much longer. Although these cells do not trigger the need for anti-rejection meds, Dr. Sander concedes that her team will still have to figure out how to prevent the autoimmune onset of diabetes from occurring in the patient again.
Up until now, scientists have had a very difficult time turning an embryonic stem cell into a functioning beta cell. The San Diego-based biotech firm VitaCyte developed a protocol to do just that, but their protocol only works well in a few select stem cell lines.
The Potential Snag
As mentioned, Dr. Sander's iPS cell research depends on embryonic stem cells to move forward.
"All of our knowledge of how things work is with the embryonic stem cells" she explains. "We plan on doing the same thing to both embryonic stem cells and iPS cells at the same time to compare how things work. We could do some work on iPS cells alone, but I don't think we could advance science as rapidly and as well if we couldn't compare everything."
Unfortunately, because of her reliance on embryonic stem cell research, Dr. Sander's work is under threat. You all probably know that President Obama authorized the renewal of federal funding of embryonic stem cell research in March 2009, reversing the ban imposed by President Bush. But in August, a judge ruled in favor of a coalition against the research and issued an injunction to block federal funding. However, an appeals court stayed the injunction in September, ruling that the government can keep funding research during the appeal process of the ban. In other words, federal support is pretty up in the air right now.
What does this mean for Dr. Sanders and others doing similar research? It means that while they enjoy NIH financial support now, the "funding rug" could be quickly pulled out from under them in the next round of court rulings.
Hopefully the courts will listen to the public: a new Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll shows that most Americans (72% of adults surveyed) now back funding for the use of embryonic stem cells left over from in vitro fertilization procedures to research potential treatments or ways to prevent diseases, including diabetes.
I just find it sort of ironic that we need the embryonic stem cells in order to pursue other ways of renewing pancreas cells; this just shows me how key stem cells are to furthering science.
Not to get too political here, but I for one am crossing my fingers for further funding of this research, which looks to me like the best bet for reaching a cure for diabetes in the foreseeable future (if not in my lifetime).