Katie Zucker, 16, has sky blue eyes, wild curly hair and a dazzling smile. She is a champion equestrian and an A student. Her parents are doting, her friends devoted. So what's not to envy? Well, there's the small rectangular box attached to her belt that pumps insulin through a tube into her hip. To test her blood, she pricks her finger seven times a day. "It's scary," she says. "If your blood sugar goes too low, you could go into a coma." Sometimes at school her eyes swell, and she can't see the blackboard. She knows that her diabetes can result in kidney failure, amputation and blindness. But mostly, she says, "I try to think it won't affect me too much in the future."
If there's any hope for a cure for Zucker and more than 1 million other Americans with Type 1 diabetes, the most debilitating form of the disease, it may lie in a revolutionary new field of research based on manipulating human embryonic stem cells. These building blocks of life, when isolated in a microscopic cluster of cells, can morph into any kind of tissue. (So-called adult stem cells, which can be harvested without sacrificing embryos, can turn into only a few tissue types.) One day, scientists hope, the entire genetic makeup of a patient like Zucker could be transferred into a cloned human egg that can produce the insulin-producing cells her body lacks.
But some religious groups believe the clumps of 100 to 200 cells from which embryonic stem cells are taken represent a potential human life as worthy of protection as any child's. Three years ago, President George W. Bush, under pressure from both sides, adopted a compromise that ended up choking off most federal research funds to the field. He said at the time that although the research offered "great promise" in saving lives, it could lead to "growing human beings for spare body parts."
Today a brush-fire challenge to Bush's stem-cell policy is spreading across the U.S., fueled by the frustration of such families as Zucker's who have allied themselves with patient activists for other diseases, major universities, several state legislatures and members of Congress. Last month 206 U.S. Representatives wrote to the President, calling on him to fund stem-cell research on spare embryos from a pool of some 400,000 stored in the freezers of in vitro fertilization clinics. These embryos, only a few days old and smaller than the head of a pin, will probably be discarded unless they are donated to science. Embryonic stem cells, the letter noted, can be used to treat "diseases that affect more than 100 million Americans, such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury ..." The signatories included two dozen pro-life Republicans.