Diabetic stem cell research may give us a real cure for diabetes. Or it may be another dead end. We do not know yet. There are a lot of hopeful signs, but there are still many questions.
What are stem cells? Can we get stem cell treatment now? Why is there controversy about stem cell research?
All over the world scientists are studying these cells. However, the controversy over the source of stem cells has clouded things.
So even if diabetic stem cell treatment is still far away, it
seems like a good idea to understand stem cells themselves.
Every cell in your body has a particular purpose. Muscle cells pump blood in your heart and make you able to walk. Nerve cells carry information.
A muscle cell can't do a nerve cell's job, because one kind of cell cannot do more or less than what it is programmed to do by its DNA.
But that is only true of adult cells. Every person begins as a single cell that divides. At about five days old you were what is called an embryo, and that embryo was nothing but stem cells.
Over the next nine months those stem cells became tissues, organs, skin, hair, everything that makes up your body now. Since embryonic stem cells are not yet specialized, they can become any kind of cell.
The decision is made in the DNA as pieces of the chain are turned on.
When scientists discovered stem cells in mouse embryos, stem cell research was born. The potential for healing in these cells was obvious. They just needed to figure out how to control what stem cells would become.
If they could do that in mice, then human embryonic stem cells might be used to make tissues, replace organs and even repair brain and spinal cord damage.
But that kind of research involved the use of human embryos. Scientists would need huge amounts of human embryos because during their experiments the embryos would be destroyed. That is where the ethical problem arose.
They began by using donated human embryos "left over" from fertilized eggs. These came from women attempting to get pregnant. Several eggs were fertilized outside the womb, and after a pregnancy was successful, the extra embryos were not needed.
When the fertilized eggs were donated for stem cell research, it alarmed a lot of us, and laws were put in place to keep human embryos from being bought and sold.
Thankfully, scientist soon found that embryos were not the only source for diabetic stem cell research. Stem cells have now been found all over the adult human body: in muscles, bone marrow, intestines, fat deposits and even the brain.
However, these stem cells are not completely unspecialized like embryonic stem cells. They are limited to becoming cells similar to the tissue they live in.
For example, bone marrow makes blood cells, so bone marrow stem cells are able to change into any one of the many types of blood cells including lymphocytes and red blood cells. But they will not become nerve or muscle cells on their own.
But today there is a third kind of stem cell. It is called a reprogrammed adult stem cell. The stem cell has been changed by use of a virus and some embryonic genes to act as if it is an embryonic stem cell.
This has been done in mice, and sometimes it actually works the way they hoped. Unfortunately, at other times the virus causes the stem cells to become tumors.
Cancer-causing cells have slowed progress down for researchers, but all over the world they are working to find other ways to reprogram adult stem cells that will not cause tumors.
The trouble is, this is going to take time, and some people do not want to wait. There is an example in the news where doctors injected stem cells into a young man's brain.
Now he has multiple brain tumors. That story illustrates why it is not good to get in a hurry about diabetic stem cell research.
There are still too many things we do not know about adult stem cells. How many places are they still hiding inside the human body? They are still being discovered. We do not know where they come from either.
Does our body make them? Are they leftovers from embryonic stem cells? If so, what keeps them from becoming specialized cells?
What makes them suddenly wake up and change from stem cells to specialized cells? Is it to replace cells that have been damaged?
How can we encourage them to become the cells we want without causing more harm than good? That is a question being chased by scientists all over the globe.
Whoever wins this race will be an instant hero and very wealthy. The competition is so intense that a few have even falsified their research to make it seem they have found an answer.
Smoking out these fakes has slowed things down. And it makes people skeptical about diabetic stem cell treatment becoming a reality.
But there was a success story in the news on Valentine's Day in 2012.
A group of heart attack victims were injected with their own heart stem cells in a clinical trial. In a few months the scar tissue from the heart attacks was reduced by half.
That kind of healing was unheard of before the trial, and it demonstrates the promise behind diabetic stem cell research.
Right now there are only a few approved therapies for using stem cells. Most of those involve bone marrow transplants of stem cells for blood diseases and immune system diseases.
Diabetes researchers are having some success with clinical trials on human diabetics. But if you do not want to wait, you can look online and find companies right now that are selling stem cell therapies.
There is nothing illegal about using your own stem cells on yourself, and these companies are ready to try if you are willing to pay for it.
Will it work? There are several things you ought to know before you spend any money.
First, adult stem cells are not able to turn into every kind of cell in your body, so stem cells from one organ won't treat a condition from a different organ.
If someone claims a single stem cell treatment will cure "everything," that should raise a warning flag for you.
Research and clinical trials move forward at a snail's pace because new medicine isn't just about whether things work but whether they are safe. The young man who has tumors in his brain because stem cells were injected there is an example.
Another thing - stem cells must be taught what to do. They need instructions on what they are supposed to become, and doctors don't know how that works yet.
Also, you need to know that just because some stem cells came from you does not mean the procedure to inject them somewhere else in your body is without risk.
It is true that your own stem cells should not be rejected, but removing and injecting cells has risks. There is the possibility of contamination from a bacteria or virus, of damage to tissues around the sites, and of causing tumors.
Be clear on what you are getting with diabetic stem cell treatment. If you are part of a clinical trial you will not be asked for money.
But experimental treatment is something you pay for yourself. That means the cost to you can be very high.
In contrast, if you
are chosen to join a clinical trial, everything is paid for by the
sponsor: the treatments, doctor's visits, supplies, all of it. Real clinical trials are free.
Diabetic stem cell research is moving forward fast. Little discoveries and big breakthroughs are being reported all the time.
Here's an example. As you know, in type 1 diabetes, lymphocytes attack beta cells and destroy them.
In a clinical trial the lymphocytes were separated from a type 1 diabetic's blood and exposed to donor cord blood from a stranger. Then the patient's lymphocytes were returned to his body.
That's because the diabetic lymphocytes stopped destroying beta cells. They seemed to have learned not to attack their own insulin-making cells simply by contact with the donor cord blood stem cells.
This is just one case, but it proves something. If we can be patient, we will see some incredible things arise from diabetic stem cell research.
Are you a type 2 diabetic? While you are waiting you can keep working toward the diabetes cure of exercise and changing your eating habits. It has been proven to work, and the side effects are all good. I think it beats waiting for diabetic stem cell research to catch up.
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