An Appeal to Congress on Embryonic Stem Cell Research by Christopher Currie

Date: 10/08/2000

Christopher Currie

Juvenile Diabetes Patient

As Congress faces possible votes on funding embryonic stem cell research, I want to share my perspective as an advocate of ethical diabetes research funding.

I was diagnosed as a Type I diabetic at age 11, and have been insulin-dependent for the past 25 years. My treatment regimen consists of multiple daily administrations of insulin, at least four daily blood tests to measure plasma glucose levels, and careful control of diet, exercise and other daily activities.

In addition to the threat of death from insulin shock or ketoacidosis, caused by having either too low or too high blood glucose levels, I must contend with the onset or advance of several complications of the disease. Among my current complications are diabetic retinopathy, which is the leading cause of blindness; kidney disease that will probably lead eventually to complete kidney failure; and diabetic neuropathy, a cause of pain and numbness now and possibly loss of function of sexual and other bodily organs later. I am also at greatly increased risk of stroke and cardiovascular disease.

At present there is no cure for diabetes, and the progression of the disease means that I can expect to lose a third or more of my normal life span. As a husband and new father who is the sole support of my family, you can imagine my anxiety as I contemplate the future of my loved ones, should I become disabled or deceased before reaching old age.

I do what I can to ensure my future health, including becoming–shortly before I proposed to my wife–one of only 25,000 U.S. diabetics to go on the insulin pump, an intensive therapy that aims at tight control of blood sugar levels. I also belong to the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation in order to educate myself about the best treatment options and promote diabetes research.

Therefore I am as excited as anyone by advances that could help cure this condition once and for all. But that excitement should not make us forget our consciences or our common sense.

Several years ago, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation and other groups promoting diabetes research insisted that Congress must fund research using fetal tissue from induced abortions. They predicted enormous progress if “islet cells” from fetal pancreatic tissue could be cultured and transplanted into humans with diabetes.

Shortly after Congress approved the funding, however, it became apparent that this avenue would not work. Each abortion produced only a very small amount of tissue; mixing tissue from different abortions only complicated the problem of tissue compatibility; and the fetal cells were too immature to produce much insulin. Congress had transgressed a new ethical boundary in using human life as raw material for research, and with no medical benefit.

This January the JDF was back before Congress, testifying that islet cell transplants have not worked –and so Congress must cross a new moral frontier, allowing researchers to harvest embryonic cells in ways that directly kill living human embryos.

Once again, advocates seek to overcome the repugnance that many rightly feel toward this ghoulish research by vastly overselling its promise as a breakthrough against disease. This time, however, the American Diabetes Association is not with them.

Perhaps having learned its lesson from the fetal-tissue fiasco, the ADA has not endorsed the JDF’s call for embryonic stem-cell research. When I contacted its government-relations department, the staff person said the ADA’s stance on the issue is governed by its position statement on “Unproven Therapies,” which opposes sanctioning such research except in very narrow circumstances. The position states, among other points, that “Proposers often provide exaggerated or unrealistic claims about these modalities.”

Indeed, it is becoming apparent once again that tissue compatibility will be a problem. So the National Institutes of Health will have to commission the destruction of many embryos to create two dozen or so new cell lines with different genetic properties. Or it will have to destroy embryos in efforts to engineer a “universal donor” cell line. Or it will even transgress yet another boundary, creating human embryos by cloning so they can be killed for their genetically matched stem cells.

Or we can look at another approach. There are many avenues of diabetes research. Some of them involve adult stem cells –like the work now being done at the University of Pittsburgh, using bone marrow stem cells to produce liver tissue and perhaps pancreatic cells as well. If the stem cells in our own bodies can be used and adapted to provide the needed cells, obviously we won’t have to worry about tissue rejection at all.

Whatever the future of medical progress may hold, however, I know we must not purchase a cure at the cost of our respect for human life. Treatments that depend on the destruction of human embryos will not help me or many thousands of patients like me, who cannot accept such treatments in good conscience. To do so would make us accomplices in the deliberate destruction of life for research purposes.

In my view, Congress should spend our tax dollars on treatments that all taxpayers can support, and that all patients can accept without violating their consciences. Please remember that the goal of medical research is not to investigate new or mysterious phenomena, but to preserve or improve the lives of real people. Congress should never sanction the destruction of some human lives in order to help others’. Neither should it waste taxpayer money on research that probably will benefit no one, and certainly won’t benefit people like me, who refuse to sell our souls to save our bodies.