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The limits of stem cells

Stems cells provide hope for millions of Americans, but patients with Alzheimer's disease may not be among them. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.
/ Source: NBC News

Jane Stein has watched her husband, Bud, deteriorate rapidly from Alzheimer's disease. Last year, she was counting on a new drug to help, but it did not. Now she is hopeful that stem cells may offer a cure. 

"Stem cells, we need that. People have got to support it more. We've got to get the government to do something and hopefully Nancy Reagan will be able to push it," says Stein.

Researchers say stem cells taken from embryos could help with many diseases. High on the list is the condition Rich Gurwitz has suffered for years, type one, or so-called juvenile diabetes. He got a transplant of insulin-producing cells and is basically cured of the disease, or at least freed of the need for insulin shots.

"I'm not a real religious guy, but I really do feel like it's a miracle," says Gurwitz.

Gurwitz' cure came not from embyronic stem cells but from cadavers, which are in very short supply. That's where stem cells from embryos come in. Dr. Juan Dominguez Bendala and his team at the Diabetes Research Institute in Miami are working to coax stem cells to multiply into what could be an endless supply of insulin-producing cells.

"I think it's actually quite possible that we'll be using human embryonic stem cells to treat type-one diabetes in the very near future," says Bendala.

Alzheimer's is a different story
But when it comes to Alzheimer's the story is different. Experts like Dr. Michael Shelanski, of Columbia University, say using stem cells to replace damaged brain cells is not the key to curing this disease.

"In Alzheimer's disease, the loss of cells which occurs, occurs late in the disease. Early in the disease you have a loss of the connections between cells. And these memories that are related to that. So simply putting more cells in is not necessarily going to re-establish those connections," says Shelanski.

Researchers say Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injuries, and dozens of other conditions might benefit from stem-cell research. So they welcome the support from the Reagans and other advocates — even if Alzheimer's does not top the list of diseases the research is likely to benefit.