Researchers announced a few days ago that, according to the MIT Technology Review, “in the most recent advance for the cloning-based approach, a new report describes stem cells produced by cloning a skin cell from a woman with type 1 diabetes. The researchers were then able to turn those stem cells into insulin-producing cells resembling the beta cells that are lost in that disease. The immune system attacks these pancreatic cells, leaving patients unable to properly regulate their blood sugar levels.”
This breakthrough, using skin cells and not controversial embryonic cells, comes at the end of a long road to develop such possible cures. And, of course, it’s only the first step in a process that might continue for years before it is applicable. That aside, the announcement marks a great day for me personally.
In 2005 I underwent two experimental islet cell transplants to cure diabetes. Insulin-producing islet cells from a total of three cadaver pancreases were implanted into my liver. Once nestled in, they began to produce insulin for me. The procedure effectively cured me of type 1 diabetes.
To keep my body’s immune system from attacking and killing the delicate cells, I was put on a strenuous regime of immunosuppressant drugs, similar to what patients with full organ transplants receive.
These drugs, in a word, sucked.
Not only were they physically difficult to tolerate, their potency, required for curbing my immune response, was actually, it turned out, harming the islet cells. After less than two years, the new cells in my liver started to die. Soon after, I was back taking insulin and living as I had lived for the 30 years before the transplants, as a type 1 diabetic.
My reaction to this was not despair. I did not regard it as some tragedy of reversion like I was living a scene from Flowers for Algernon or The Awakening. The procedure, after all, was experimental. There were no guarantees of success. I knew this going in, and I never lost sight of the overwhelming likelihood for failure.
I said to people, and wrote in my book, Chasing Medical Miracles: The Promise and Perils of Clinical Trials, that despite the personal cost, I was gratified to have contributed, in my small way, to finding a cure.
But, I’ll tell you a secret. I was pissed.
In all likelihood, the cells from generous organ donors would have kept working if not for the toxic, immunosuppressant drugs I had to take. If those cells had been stem cells I would not have needed to take that poison. Where, I wondered, were the stem cells? Why were they not put into me?
For me, my gratification for helping find a cure, while sincere, was abstract and amorphous and intellectual. It wasn’t emotional and from the gut. Politics and religion had interfered with a cure for a crippling and deadly disease. Not just in me, but in millions of people.
Then a few days ago came the announcement about skin cells and cloning islet cells for a type 1 diabetic. Now, it is not merely abstract. It is one step closer to being real. Really real. And now, finally, I can say, I’m glad. I am pleased, gratified, and over the moon happy that the things I went through—that the sacrifices made by the medical team who worked on the procedure—are now to contributing to moving research substantially forward toward a possible cure.