President Obama has lifted restrictions on the use of federal money for research using embryonic stem cells. Some researchers are already making progress using stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which entails no controversy since there is no destruction of an embryo involved in the process. One research team is closing in on a treatment for people suffering from Type I diabetes.
At the University of Texas Medical Branch, known as UTMB, in Galveston, researcher Larry Denner is working with stem cells that can be coaxed into becoming insulin-producing cells.
Peering into his microscope, Denner speaks enthusiastically about the progress they have made in growing stem cells in the laboratory.
"So we look at the cells here and we can tell just by looking at them under a regular microscope how they are growing," he said.
Such research is viewed with great anticipation by Type I diabetes patients like Pamela Phelps.
"I have been praying since I was 15 [years-old] that they would find a cure or at least better ways to understand it and be able to deal with it on a daily basis."
Even though research proceeds slowly, she says the scientists doing it are giving her a vision of a better future.
"I feel hopeful, extremely hopeful, because without them where would we stand, we would have to give up, but I do not feel like giving up," she said.
Diabetics like Phelps stay alive by getting regular injections of insulin to compensate for the inability of their own pancreases to produce the hormone that regulates glucose in the blood.
That is where Larry Denner and the UTMB research comes in.
"We can look and see, for example, if the cells that we have engineered now can make insulin," he said. "We have very specific ways to look, using microscopy and antibodies that can specifically detect whether these cells make insulin."
Under controlled laboratory situations, Denner and his team have been able to engineer insulin-producing cells from stem cells.
"The protocol we followed was actually derived from what happens in the normal embryological development of the pancreas," said Denner.
Denner says the lifting of the ban on embryonic stem cell research will benefit his effort by providing more information on how stem cells develop into organ cells. But he says this research will continue to use cells from fresh umbilical cords provided by the UTMB hospital.
"The cells we work with are derived from the umbilical cord that is a part of every birth of every baby on the earth everyday and, typically, that material is discarded as medical waste," he said.
He says stem cells from umbilical cords can be differentiated into a wide variety of different cell types, but these cells do not have full immune-system functions that can cause tissue rejection.
There is the possibility in the future that such cells could create a complete pancreas for transplanting into a patient with diabetes. But Denner says he is focused on the next few years, working to develop human trials to see if insulin-producing cells created in the laboratory will help people suffering from diabetes.