Diabetes, particularly type 1 diabetes, is a very serious illness that requires daily monitoring of blood glucose levels and, even if properly treated, can still lead to a number of lifelong ailments. Complications due to diabetes are one of the top ten killers in America, and it has been estimated that over two hundred thousand people die from diabetic complications every year.
Clearly, with such grim results, the search for a cure for diabetes is one of the holy grails of medical science. Currently there is no cure for the disease, but there are several promising technologies on the horizon. First, there is the closed loop insulin pump which, in many ways, acts as an artificial pancreas to keep insulin levels where they need to be. Another promising technique is to replace the islet cells, which are the cells in the pancreas that are necessary for the production of insulin. The third technology, and the one that holds the greatest promise of a complete diabetes cure, is the possibility of growing new islets cells from undifferentiated stem cells.
The closed loop insulin pump is a device that is currently in development that will continuously monitor levels of blood glucose and subcutaneously dispense insulin into the bloodstream as necessary. The disadvantage of this technology is that the pump must be worn outside the body and supplied with an external source of insulin. Additionally, since it is a highly complicated computerized mechanical device, there is the very real threat that a closed loop insulin pump could malfunction.
Another possible cure for the disease is the islet transplant. In this treatment, islet cells from a healthy donor are injected into the diseased pancreas. While this technique has proven marginally effective in clinical trials, it carries with it a host of difficulties. The most serious problem is the threat of rejection. Since the immune system will recognize the transplanted islet cells as foreign bodies, it will destroy them. The only way to prevent this from happening is to take medication that decreases immune function. This is a drastic measure that can lead to a host of other problems due to the increased possibility of infection and cancer that occurs when the immune system does not function properly.
While islet transplants and closed loop insulin pumps are not perfect, they are both in the testing phase and could impact millions of diabetics within few years. However, there is a much better treatment possibility, one that promises to be a true cure with many fewer side effects, that may become a reality in the future. This is the possibility of growing new islet cells from the patients own stem cells. This would provide new, functional islet cells that will not be attacked by the immune system since they have the same markers as other cells in the body.
Stem cell research is a hot button issue politically because of the, mistaken, assumption that stem cell research requires the destruction of a human fetus. While it is true that the richest source of human stem cells do indeed come from fetal tissue, there are many other ways to harvest stem cells.
If the political hurdles can be cleared and dedicated research into stem cell technology is allowed to progress, we could see a true cure for type 1 diabetes within the next few decades. This would forever remove the effects of this terrible disease from our lives. Additionally, stem cell research could also be used to treat many other disorders, including nerve and retinal damage that can occur as a side effect of diabetes. The sky is truly the limit for stem cell technology.