Sunday, June 24, 2007

Chilly News

Certain political figures have been reminding us that there are only 10,000 frozen embryos available for research. By available for research, they mean that parents have given proper consent for unused blastocysts from in vitro fertilization (IVF) to be used for research purposes. This includes(but is not limited to) extracting the little mass of cells that can be turned into embryonic stem cell lines. Pundits have been noting (correctly) that embryonic stem cell (ESC) advocates are grossly overestimating the number of available donated blastocysts. Step into their shoes for a moment: If ESC advocates are exaggerating on this point, what's to keep them from overestimating the therapeutic potential of these cells?

Research to be published in Science magazine next week sheds important light on this issue. Here are some facts:
  • There are 400,000 embryos are frozen in the United States. These are the 5 day old, pre-implantation balls of cells (called blastocysts).
  • 87% are being held for patient treatment, of which more than two-thirds are eventually disposed of.
  • 3% (11,000) are available for research because the donors have given consent for their use.
  • Because it is not exactly easy to make a cell line from a blastocyst, these donated embryos could result in the formation of 275 cell lines.
  • Currently there are 20 cell lines approved for use of federal funds
This new study indicates that half of all users of IVF clinics would donate cells to research, and almost two-thirds would donate if they knew the cells would be used to create ESC lines. The authors state
for most of the individuals who create embryos in hopes of having a baby, the preference is not that their remaining embryos have a chance at life, but rather that they be used in a way (research, and if not, simply destruction) that ensures that they do not.
Only one quarter of responders indicated they would be willing to donate the embryo to another infertile couple to create so-called "snowflake babies."

The study concludes with the assessment that
the way that infertility patients resolve the very personal moral challenge of supernumerary embryo disposition is consonant with the conclusions of the American public, the majority of whom support human embryonic stem cell research.
The disparity between patients willing to donate and embryos available for research is an order of magnitude off. It seems to me there is a lot of room for experts in informed consent to team with advocates for stem cell research to increase the chances families have to donate their embryos. Whether it's to other families or to the community of science, either will be better than bleach!

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