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Diabetes Health Center

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Stem Cells Turned Into Insulin Producers Offer Promise for Diabetics

If you'd like to share your opinion on the controversy, or just have a question about diabetes, go WebMD's Diabetes board, moderated by Gloria Yee, RN, CDE. continued...

McKay and colleagues built on earlier research showing that cells that grow up into brain and nerves are strikingly similar in early embryonic development to cells that go on to become part of the endocrine system, which controls hormones such as insulin.

"There has always been a belief that endocrine cells and neural cells have a kind of common history, way back early in development, and there are a lot of similarities between them, particularly beta cells of the pancreas," says Snyder, assistant professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School. "This work would support the common heritage that the two cell types have, and it would make some sense, in fact, that you could use selection techniques for neural cells to then derive endocrine cells, even from cells that seem to have the broad range of potential as embryonic stem cells do."

Although researchers have had some success with transplanting beta-islet cells from cadavers into people with type 1 diabetes, such cells are limited in supply and have the potential to evoke the same kind of harmful immune response from the patients as their own beta-cells do. In contrast, stem cells have the potential to provide a virtually limitless source of beta-islet cells.

But whether scientists will be able to develop human embryonic stem cells to their full potential is another question. Last week, the Bush administration ordered the National Institutes of Health to indefinitely postpone the first meeting of a committee that would review requests for government funding of research using stem cells derived from human embryos.

The move, combined with other statements and policy changes issued by Bush administration officials has scientists worried that critical medical research may be in jeopardy.

"Soon the Bush administration will decide the fate of human embryonic stem cell research at U.S. government-funded institutions, and the outcome of that decision will greatly influence the role of [embryonic stem cell] science in human developmental biology around the world," write stem cell researchers Irving Weissman, MD and David Baltimore, PhD in an accompanying editorial. "But although the forces that science brings to this field are powerful, the future of [embryonic stem cell] research will largely be determined by other interests: politics, organized religion, commerce, the legal community, and patient advocacy groups. The decision-making process needs to develop a policy that is fact-based and serves the best interests of society as well as science."

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