As you can read in my previous post, type 1 Diabetes Mellitus (T1DM) is caused by the deficiency of the insulin producing Beta-cells in the pancreas. It’s the body’s own white blood cells that attack these Beta-cells.
One of the most promising and upcoming treatments involves the use of stem cells. They could be grown in a certain way so they would differentiate into insulin-producing cells. Stem cells can be derived from a couple of sources like the umbilical cord, bone marrow and embryonic cells as you can see in the figure below. Of course deriving stem cells from embryonic cells raises ethical questions like no other. Can we justify the extraction of stem cells, and therefor the death of a human embryo in order to potentially cure a T1DM patient?
(Aguayo-Mazzucato, C., & Bonner-Weir, S. (2010). Stem cell therapy for type 1 diabetes mellitus. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 6(3), 139–148. Retrieved from http://www.nature.com/nrendo/journal/v6/n3/fig_tab/nrendo.2009.274_F1.html)
Using these pluripotent cells doesn’t come without any challenges. Culturing embryonic cells is difficult without them already differentiating. This results in potential tumor growth as well. The biggest issue however is the possibility of immune rejection after transplantation. So immune-surppresant medication would be necessary.
Another source of stem cells may be of somatic nature instead of embryonic, stem cells from bone marrow tissue for example. The major advantage is that stem cells of non-pancreatic origin can differentiate into insulin-producing Beta-cells. This is astonishing as it was always believed that stem cells from somatic origin can only differentiate into specialised cells from the tissue of which they were extracted. This research hasn’t reached clinical trials yet but when these stem cells of bone marrow tissue were transplanted into mice, they differentiated into functional insulin-producing cells.
Using these somatic stem cells is a much more ethical way of finding the cure in the research of T1DM. Using stem cell research can indeed be ethically viable in the pursuit of a treatment for diabetes. As somatic stem cells don’t generally induce an immune reaction, this gives them an advantageous edge over embryonic stem cells.
In my own opinion, there is more research needed to determine the exact advantage of somatic stem cells versus embryonic stem cells. More tests need to be performed to conclude that the immune system doesn’t get triggered after transplantation. The advancements in medicine can never increase without the rise of ethical questions. For instance the use of lab animals is an ethical stumbling block yet a necessary one for human lives to be saved.