President George W. Bush has vowed to veto federal legislation that would loosen current limitations on stem-cell research. But a recent study suggests that patients who have created and frozen embryos as part of fertility treatments may not share the moral qualms held by Bush and other opponents of stem-cell research.
Scientists at Duke Medical Center and the Johns Hopkins University sent questionnaires to 2,210 patients at nine infertility centers across the U.S., asking them about their intentions for the frozen embryos they currently had stored. (People undergoing fertility treatment may end up with anywhere from one to more than twenty unused embryos at the end of the process.)
Among those surveyed, research proved to be the most desirable option for disposition of excess embryos—more popular than donation to another infertile couple or destruction.
While 49 percent of those who responded to the survey indicated that they were likely to donate some or all of their excess embryos to research in general, the number increased to about 60 percent when the questions were more specific, asking about stem-cell research in particular, and about research aimed at developing treatments for human disease or for infertility.
Because stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell present in the human body, it may eventually be possible to treat diseases ranging from autoimmune disorders to cancer by using the stem cells to generate healthy cells to replace damaged ones. Embryonic stem cells are more versatile than their counterparts derived from adults or from umbilical cord blood.
Anne Drapkin Lyerly M.D. '95, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke and lead investigator on the study, suspects patients might feel a responsibility to the embryos that precludes allowing them to develop into children to be reared by other people, or to be destroyed without benefit. "For the people in possession of these embryos, research may prove to be the most acceptable and morally preferable option," Lyerly says.
These findings suggest that the number of embryos potentially available for stem-cell research may be much larger than scientists thought.
"Previous research indicates that there are approximately 400,000 frozen embryos stored in the United States," says Lyerly. "If half of those belong to people who are willing to donate embryos for research, and only half that number were in fact donated, there could still be 100,000 embryos available for research." Earlier estimates placed the number of available embryos at about 11,000, she says.
As current federal policies do not reflect the preferences of infertility patients, "this has significant implications for potential policy change on stem cell research," Lyerly says. The researchers published their findings in the journal Science.
Stem-Cell Research Favored
October 1, 2007