Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Can Stem Cell Research Cure Type 1 Diabetes?

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)
Human stem cell research started in 1998, after scientists had already tested the process on mice years before. Afterwards in 2000, a study by Bernat Soria in Spain resulted in the finding that stem cells were able to replace the missing insulin temporarily (Stem Cells and Diabetes, 2001). Yet, after years and years, humans still have diabetes and insulin prices are rising. Treatment and supplies costed the global economy $245 billion in 2012 (American Diabetes…, 2017), and parents of Type 1 diabetics are paying around $400-500 for insulin every month (Spero, 2016). Type 1 diabetics take around 2-4 shots every day to keep their blood glucose levels stable (American Diabetes…, 2017); the cost of their well-being has become outrageous. With only 3 manufacturers of insulin in the US and diabetics depending on them, the price does not look like it will go down either (Spero, 2016).
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.
Concluding Thoughts

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.


American Diabetes Association. (2017). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
An Overview of Stem Cell Research | The Center for Bioethics & Human Dignity. (2017). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Bajak, A. (2016, August 12). Will embryonic stem cells ever cure anything? Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Diabetes type 1 - Stem cells treatment clinic. (2017). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Diabetes 101. (2013). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Differences Between Type 1 and Type 2. (2016). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Hildreth, C. (2016, October 16). How Many Billions Are Spent on Stem Cell Funding? (NIH Spends $1.5B/Year). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
How Much Do Stem Cell Treatments Really Cost? (2016, May 05). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Murganhan, I. (2017, January 3). Stem Cells: The Facts. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Orloff, I. (2015, September 25). Unpacking the Rising Cost of Insulin and What it Means for Patients. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
Spero, D. (2016, August 31). The Cost of Insulin. Retrieved April 05, 2017, from
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What are Islet Cells? (2015). Retrieved April 05, 2017, from


  1. I think you did a great job with this blog, you clearly state your view point on the issue you discuss and thoroughly explain the solution, including its benefits and drawbacks. One question you could have included the answer to is how effective has this treatments been and how common it is and its success rate.
    Overall you wrote a clearly structured report, include references, in text as well as listed with clear scientific explanations which are supported through images.

    Nice blog
    - Lisa

    1. Thanks a lot for the feedback, Lisa. You're right; I probably should've emphasized that treatments aren't very common, so there aren't many accurate success rates. good stuff

  2. The blog you created is really good, explaining type one diabetes, the use of stem cells, the ethical factor and the two cases that someone could make. The economical factor is well explained in detail and helps the reader understand the cost of using stem cell treatment.
    In conclusion, i thing that your blog is great, well done!

    1. Thanks, my dude Panos! Good feedback, appreciate it. good stuff