Stem-cell researchers must follow rules

For years, some diabetes researchers have focused on the potential of stem cells to become a magic bullet for treating Type 1 diabetes. One of the leaders in this field has been Douglas Melton, a Harvard researcher who switched to this area after his son was diagnosed with the disease.

Type 1 diabetes, previously known as juvenile diabetes, is an autoimmune disease that destroys beta cells in the pancreas, which produce insulin. Insulin is necessary to regulate blood-sugar levels. Without insulin, the blood becomes a syrupy goo that can severely damage the body's organs over time, leading to heart disease, kidney failure, and blindness.

Embryonic stem cells can grow into different types of tissue, including beta cells, which accounts for their appeal among researchers trying to tackle this disease. In his book Cheating Destiny: Living With Diabetes, America's Biggest Epidemic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), author James Hirsch outlined how former president George W. Bush made it more difficult for Melton to do his work.

In 2001, Bush banned the use of federal funds for research on eggs fertilized after August 9, 2001, as a sop to his anti-abortion supporters. Hirsch reported that Melton continued his work, funded privately by the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and other donors. But he had to create a separate lab to ensure no equipment—not even light bulbs or computers—would be used that was purchased with federal funds.

“But it worked,” Hirsch wrote. “By 2004, his lab had created seventeen new lines of embryonic stem cells, the most successful effort to date, doubling the number of lines available for research. Melton distributed the cells to more than three hundred labs around the world, free of charge.”

In Canada, researchers have also faced obstacles in conducting stem-cell research. On June 29, 2007, the major federal funding body for health research in this country, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, issued updated guidelines. There is now a ban on direct and indirect payment for tissues collected for stem-cell research. One “guiding principle” outlaws the creation of embryos for research purposes by anyone obtaining federal funding.

According to the 2007 guidelines, a Stem Cell Oversight Committee conducts ethical reviews of all “human pluripotent stem cell research proposals recommended for approval by the Agencies' scientific peer review panels, or conducted under the auspices of institutions receiving Agency funding”. According to the minutes of a committee that met last April, six applications were reviewed. The first, from an unnamed applicant, sought to “derive and establish human embryonic stem cell lines”.

The committee raised several issues. “These include clarification of the funding source, whether or not the human embryos or embryo material that is not used to derive hESCs will be destroyed and discarded, that the physician should not be the person meeting with the patients to obtain consent, and confirmation that there will be no directed donation of the cells or cell lines to particular individuals.”

Dr. Bruce Verchere, director of the diabetes research program at the Child and Family Research Institute in Vancouver, told the Georgia Straight that his lab assesses how beta cells derived from stem cells function when they're transplanted into mice with diabetes. “During the Bush years, it was more difficult for Americans to do human embryonic stem-cell research,” Verchere said. “Of course, we didn't have the same restrictions here, but we have the oversight committee and the ethical guidelines that we operate within so the research can go forward.”

PhD student Kate Potter is one of many graduate students who work in Verchere's lab. She told the Straight that she focuses on non-immune mechanisms of graft failure after the islets of beta cells are transplanted. “It's not yet clinically at the stage where it's being used,” Potter said, “but there is a lot of very, very exciting work going on.”

When asked if she would consider working in the United States, she replied, “I might just go away for training, but my ultimate goal would be to stay here or come back.”