The Stem Cell Story
Stem cell research is a topic on which the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation International (JDRF) has taken the lead, because it's one of the most exciting possibilities for a cure for diabetes — and for many other diseases, including cancer — that has ever been discovered.
What Are Stem Cells? The kind of stem cells that show the most promise are those taken out of a tiny clump of cells known as an "embryo." (More about embryos later.)
Embryonic stem cells are great for diabetes research because scientists have recently discovered that these cells can turn into any other cell in the human body. In fact, in small animals, scientists have been able to turn these stem cells into islet-like cells that produce some insulin! Although scientists have made cells from adult animals generate insulin, they have not been able to recreate this success in humans. Taking them from an embryo seems to be important.
You can see the potential here. It's possible to imagine a day when you could go to the doctor, be diagnosed with diabetes, get an injection of new, healthy islet cells, and be sent happily on your way.
The other great thing about embryonic stem cells is that it appears they can keep replicating themselves. This means an unlimited supply, so everyone who needs them could get them.
Now that's the kind of cure scientists are dreaming of.
The Embryo Dilemma If you've had health and biology classes at school, you probably know what an embryo is. A human baby begins as an embryo, a mass of cells smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
Embryos usually form inside the mother's body and then grow into healthy babies. Scientific researchers, however, have learned how to form embryos outside the body, in a laboratory. This has been a wonderful development for mothers and fathers who have been unsuccessful in having a baby. Scientists can develop embryos and then implant them in the mother to grow into normal, healthy babies. This means many couples who couldn't have babies now can.
But the very fact that embryos could eventually become babies is the reason that stem cells are a controversial topic. To get stem cells, scientists must remove them from embryos. Some people believe that doing this is destroying a human life.
However, many other people, and JDRF, believe that doing this could actually preserve human life, because of all the people like you that these cells could help.
One reason they feel this way is because federal guidelines say that these stem cells should only come from embryos that would otherwise be thrown away. Usually, when couples have embryos made and implanted (it's called in vitro fertilization), there are extras left over. Couples have the choice of having these embryos destroyed, donated to another couple, or donated to scientific research.
JDRF believes that for couples who wish to, donating their unused embryos for stem cell research would be similar to making an organ donation. It allows them to give more people life, rather than simply throwing away potential lives that would not be developed anyway.
Why It's News The JDRF Children's Congress delegates worked so hard to advocate for stem cell research two years ago because President Bush was considering not allowing any federal research money to go to scientists to perform research using human stem cells taken from embryos.
Partly due to hard work by advocates for research (such as JDRF's Children's Congress delegates), the President said he would allow some research to go forward using stem cells from 60 different already-established groups of cells, or "cell lines."
Since then, it has become clear that the number of cell lines actually available is much smaller—now estimated at 12. JDRF and other organizations are working hard to persuade the President to allow more cell lines to be used by researchers.
Attitude Check No doubt about it, stem cell research presents a difficult dilemma that requires everyone to consider his or her ideas about when life begins and what it means to give and save life.
What do you think about stem cell research? As a person who could benefit from it, you might find yourself being asked this question.
JDRF has put together a collection of articles about stem cell research and has published its position paper online. You can read more about it and discuss with your parents how your family feels about this research, and then make your own decision.