May 18, 2004
John Morgan and Stephan A. Shoop, M.D.
Dustin Hoffman's roles in Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie and Rain Man challenged our perceptions of what it is to be a parent, a man and a brother. Now Hoffman is using that same sense of humanity to appeal to California voters to support stem cell research.
"My wife Lisa and I became involved with this issue for several reasons," says the two-time Academy Award winner. "Among them is the fact that our daughter's best friend was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 11 years old. Another reason is stem cell research offers the best hope for a cure and should be pursued."
Hoffman recently joined in helping the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation's first-ever fundraiser to support stem cell research. Hoffman was joined by a who's who list of Hollywood celebrities including: Michael J. Fox, Harrison Ford, James Taylor and Warren Beatty. The gala honored former First Lady Nancy Regan for her passionate support of Alzheimer's disease as well as stem cell research. The event also recognized two organizations — the Entertainment Industry Foundation and Novo Nordisk – that have actively championed the research.
"We believe for Type 1 diabetes this is the most promising research area for finding a cure," states Martin Soeters, president of Novo Nordisk. "We don't have a political position. There are so many people with diabetes that we just want to defeat this disease and find a cure. If stem cell research is the best way, then I think we should pursue it."
Stem cells are unique because they can make more of themselves as well as differentiate into specialized cells. This "flexibility" makes them well-suited for diabetes research, a disease caused by too few or no islet cells.
Type 1 diabetes, or juvenile onset diabetes, is a chronic metabolic disorder that damages the pancreas, preventing it from producing insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by islet cells that the body requires to utilize glucose as an energy source. More than 18 million Americans have diabetes, with between 5%-10% having Type 1. Diabetes is the sixth leading cause of death, killing more than 200,000 Americans in 2000, and is the leading cause of blindness and renal failure in the US.
"What this research has more to do with is not when life begins but when life ends," Hoffman says. "This research may one day eliminate these diseases from ending people's lives prematurely."
Despite the support of more than 100 Nobel Laureate scientists, political controversy generated by religious conservative factions has polarized the issue as a battle ground for the Right to Life movement. Hoffman is concerned that critical scientific and medical research is being slowed, if not prevented, because of misconceptions about stem cell research.
"These stem cells are obtained from frozen cells from people who have done in vitro fertilization," explains Hoffman, whose mother-in-law has the auto-immune disease multiple sclerosis. "At a certain point, these frozen cells are simply discarded. The Bush Administration does not dispute the fact that those blastocyst cells can be discarded. But before they are discarded, scientists could actually use these cells to possibly find treatments and even cures for many diseases afflicting millions of Americans."
One such disease is Type 1 diabetes.
There are many types of stem cells, but the ones at issue are more precisely called pluripotent stem cells because they literally have "many abilities." These cells have the ability to differentiate into essentially any type of body cell. The idea would be to figure out how to tell these particular stem how to become islet cells. There is very promising work already suggesting that these stem cells can be directed to form islet cells.
And according to experts, there is already proof of concept. Type 1 diabetes is already successfully treated using the Edmonton protocol and transplanting islet cells into the diabetic patient. The downside to this treatment is the need to take immunosuppressive drugs, and the fact that three donors are needed to treat one patient. Researchers believe that pluripotent cells could be used with the Edmonton protocol to eliminate the need for donors and immunosuppressive drugs.
But research has slowed and valuable time for people with life-threatening illnesses is running out.
A large part of the problem may be that the cells enlisted for this research are often called "embryonic stem cells." Experts say this is not scientifically precise and may have resulted in unnecessary controversy that potentially will cost lives as well as hobble American biotechnology research.
"When people say embryonic stem cells, which is a really misnomer, they think of little hands and feet, but that is not what this is," explains Larry Goldstein, professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the UCSD School of Medicine in La Jolla, California. "These blastocysts are simply a little ball of cells. If opponents are concerned about using these cells for research to cure diseases, all I want to know is where have they been for the last 10 years when these frozen blastocysts were being destroyed routinely during IVF."
Conservatives and liberals alike seem confused by the Bush Administration's policy preventing Federal funding for stem cell research involving cell lines – those genetically identical cells derived from blastocysts – extracted after August 9, 2001.
"I'm at a loss to explain this logic," says Goldstein. "These are cells and blastocysts remaining after IVF that will be discarded anyway, because there are only a limited number of options for these unused blastocysts. So the question is then, what do we do with them? Are we going to try to use these cells to benefit someone, or are we just going to destroy them with no benefit whatsoever?"
That very question will likely be answered this fall in California when a ballot initiative and bond measure for advancing and funding stem cell research is presented to voters.
"If the public speaks out and voices its desire that these cells be
made available for scientific medical research, we will have an extraordinary
opportunity to eliminate this disease called diabetes and many other autoimmune
diseases," Hoffman says. "We are only asking that before we discard these
cells can we please use the stem cells derived from them to cure our children
and loved ones?"
Copyright © 2004, USA Today