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More than Half of Infertile Couples May Be Willing to Donate Unused Embryos to Stem Cell Research

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. -- In a survey of over a thousand patients who
have created and frozen embryos as part of fertility treatment,
60 percent said they would be likely to donate unused embryos
for stem cell research, according to a study led by researchers
at Duke University Medical Center and Johns Hopkins University.
The researchers published their findings online in the June 20,
2007 Science Express, the online component of the journal
Science, and the study will be published in the journal's July
6, 2007 print issue.

These findings suggest that the number of embryos
potentially available for stem cell research may be 10 times
higher than previous estimates, resulting in a potential
100-fold increase in the number of stem cell lines -- groups of
stem cells derived from a single source -- available for
federally funded research.

Moreover, current federal policies do not reflect the
preferences of infertility patients who have faced the very
personal moral challenge of deciding what to do with their
frozen embryos, according to the study.

"This has significant implications for potential policy
change on stem cell research," said Anne Drapkin Lyerly, M.D.,
an obstetrician/ gynecologist and bioethicist at Duke and lead
investigator on the study. "Previous research indicates that
there are approximately 400,000 frozen embryos stored in the
United States; 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 said.

The researchers sent questionnaires to 2,210 patients at
nine infertility centers across the United States, asking them
about their intentions for the frozen embryos they currently
had stored. The study was funded by the Greenwall Foundation
and the National Institutes of Health.

While 49 percent of those who responded 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, Lyerly
said.

Among those surveyed, research proved to be the most
desirable option for disposition of excess embryos, according
to the study; other options, including donation to another
infertile couple or destruction of the embryos, were far less
desirable. Infertility patients proved more likely to support
donating unused embryos to research than giving them to another
couple or simply destroying them. Lyerly suspects they might
feel a responsibility to the embryos which actually precludes
allowing them to develop into children to be reared by other
people, or to be destroyed without benefit. People undergoing
fertility treatment may end up with anywhere from one to more
than 20 unused embryos at the end of the process.

Stem cells have the ability to become any type of cell
present in the human body, so it may be possible to use them in
the future to treat many types of diseases, from autoimmune
disorders to cancer, by generating healthy cells to replace
damaged ones. Embryonic stem cells are more versatile than
their counterparts derived from adults or from umbilical cord
blood.

Currently, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research
is limited to research on stem cell lines derived from embryos
before August 2001, and may not be used for any research in
which an embryo is destroyed. Funding from private or state
funding sources is growing, but is still insufficient, Lyerly
said. President Bush has vowed to veto recent federal
legislation that would loosen current limitations on stem cell
research.

"For the people in possession of these embryos, research may
prove to be the most acceptable and morally preferable option,"
Lyerly said.

Ruth Faden from the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of
Bioethics coauthored the paper.

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