By: Griffin McIntyre
Stem cell research is one of the most promising fields of biotechnology, already having the ability to treat diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and heart disease (Stem Cell Research, 2016). The unique trait of stem cells to essentially become any kind of cell and reproduce continuously hints at many advancements in the future and the rising possibility of curing a certain disease that is both common and dangerous: Type 1 diabetes.
What is Type 1 Diabetes? How is Stem Cell Research Applicable?
In 2012, 29.1 million Americans , or 9.3% of the population, had diabetes, a number that has only risen since then (American Diabetes…, 2017); approximately 5-10 percent of those people had Type 1, with the rest having Type 2. Understanding that almost one tenth of a country’s population has a disease is vital in supporting the wellbeing of the people.
|Figure 1: Normal Insulin v. Diabetic (Diabetes 101, 2013)|
Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease, meaning that the immune system mistakenly attacks parts of the body (Differences Between…, 2016). In this case, it is attacking the beta cells in the pancreas, which sense glucose and secrete insulin to maintain homeostasis. Without insulin to regulate the amounts of glucose in the blood, the levels continue to rise and fluctuate uncontrollably, possibly leading to heart disease or death.
Researchers intend to use stem cells, which can replicate the function, to replace the missing beta cells and restore the normal production of insulin to the body. Unfortunately, this cannot be completed as easily with Type 2 diabetes; in this kind, the body loses the ability to respond to insulin instead (Differences Between…, 2016). Since the beta cells are still present, simply malfunctioning, the pancreas’ function cannot be replaced in Type 2 as it is in Type 1.
While it does seem like an immediate cure, challenges come with keeping and finding working stem cells. Matching donors, in terms of tissue and DNA, need to be found with functioning cells to match with those afflicted. Freezing and preventing the cells from developing is also vital in conserving them for later use. Despite this, the benefits do still look to be worth the effort.
|Figure 2: Beta Cells in Diabetics (Stem Cell Therapy, 2016)|
Is Stem Cell Research Ethical?
Stem cells are found in just about every adult tissue in the human body (An Overview of Stem…, 2017); however, the stem cell with the most potential for variation and future utility is the embryonic stem cell. It is pluripotent, meaning that it can essentially produce any type of cell in someone’s body. Unfortunately, embryonic stem cells are harvested from a human embryo at the cost of its life. This stirs up debate among many religious and pro-life communities, as some people view this as killing the fetus and potentially taking a life.
Thinking on the other side of the argument, most of the embryos that are used in research would have been discarded anyway, as they are abortions or miscarriages from in-vitro fertilization clinics. All embryos are received from consenting donors who do not wish to carry or give birth to another child (Stem Cells and Diabetes, 2001). Those who support research into embryonic stem cells know of the millions of people who can benefit from the treatment that they offer, and how the used fetuses would have been disposed of anyway.
Either way, stem cells have already provided evidence for their ability to help patients. But the belief that [fetal] lives are not worth the stem cells they reward is why this subject is still up for debate today.
Taking Economics Into Account
|Figure 3: Global Insulin Sales & Growth (Orloff, 2015)|
Looking at this, using stem cells to cure diabetes should be a no-brainer; however, the research and treatment come with a cost as well. American clinics typically charge up to $10,000 for a single stem cell treatment. Many of these clinics are not approved by the FDA as well, and higher demand for these programs can boost the price even higher (How Much Do Stem…, 2016). Not only the people have to pay a lot, either: total cost for stem cell research in the US reached approximately $1.495 billion in 2016 (Hildreth, 2016).
Diabetes treatment through insulin and stem cells both come at a hefty price, but in the long run, the cheaper investment and potential for curing Type 1 can only be seen in the latter.
Doug Melton and his researchers at Harvard have succeeded in doing the process in diabetic mice, where working replacement cells are inserted into the mice to restore normal levels of insulin and glucose in the blood (Bajak, 2016). Finding a way to do the same thing with humans does not look to be out of reach, and the opportunities that stem cells promise for the future of disease treatment seems to be endless. Prices for both insulin and research continue to rise, as well as the number of people affected worldwide; despite this, the ability to effectively treat and cure Type 1 diabetes is one that can definitely be found in the near future of stem cell research.
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