Diabetes mellitus affects 18 million people in the U.S. alone (8.7% of the population) and more than 190 million worldwide. The prevalence of diabetes has increased alarmingly in the past three decades and, corresponding to global dietary and lifestyle trends, is projected to nearly double in the next ten years (1). Although diabetes can be treated, serious complications from improperly managed diabetes are common and can lead to death. Recent reports suggest that one of the most promising potential treatments may come from the use of stem cells, undifferentiated cells that can be coaxed into becoming insulin-producing islet-like cells that reduce diabetes symptoms in mice (2).
There is one ethical catch, however: stem cells can be derived from a number of sources, including adult tissues, but the purest source of stem cells with the greatest therapeutic potential is early-stage embryos. The process of deriving stem cells destroys the embryo. Does the human embryo have moral status that would proscribe its destruction, regardless of the potential good that might be achieved? If so, are there still avenues of stem cell research that are both scientifically viable as well as morally permissible?
Diabetes is a disease that results from the body's inability to maintain consistent levels of glucose (the main energy source for cells) in the blood. In a healthy individual, blood glucose levels are kept within a certain range by insulin, a hormone that aids the uptake of glucose by cells. The release of insulin in response to blood glucose levels is coordinated by clusters of cells in the pancreas called islets; residing in these islets are the beta cells, the cells that actually produc...
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4. Hori, Y. et al. 2002. Growth inhibitors promote differentiation of insulin-producing
tissue from embryonic stem cells. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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5. Ianus, A. et al. 2003. In vivo derivation of glucose-competent pancreatic endocrine
cells from bone marrow without evidence of cell fusion. Journal of Clinical Investment.
6. Yang, L. et al. 2002. In vitro trans-differentiation of adult hepatic stem cells into
pancreatic endocrine hormone-producing cells. Proceedings of the National
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7. Meyer, J. June 2000. Human embryonic stem cells and respect for life. Journal
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8. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Donum Vitae. I:1-5. Boston: St.
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