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Couples Support Embryo Studies - Many Would Donate Their Cells

by Kristen Collins, Staff Writer,  Raleigh News & Observer,  Dec 4, 2008

Couples who create the embryos used in stem cell research would rather they be destroyed in the course of experiments than be given a chance at becoming babies, a Duke University Medical Center study has found.

The study, released this morning, says 41 percent of patients who had finished fertility treatment were very likely to donate their embryos for stem-cell research. An additional 12 percent were very likely to discard the embryos. Only 16 percent said they were very likely to donate the unused embryos to another couple, the sole option that would avoid destroying them.

In vitro fertilization typically involves the creation of several embryos, some of which may be saved for possible future use.

"The national debate presumes that if you care about and respect a human embryo, you would want that embryo to have a chance at life," said Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, a Duke obstetrician and ethicist who led the study. "What we found was that people cared very much about what happened to their embryos, but one of their significant concerns was that their embryos not become children in families other than their own."

Lyerly surveyed about 1,000 couples who had frozen embryos in storage at nine fertility clinics across the country, including one at Duke. She says it is the only large, comprehensive study of the way fertility patients deal with their unused embryos.

Jacqueline Betancourt, a participant who lives in North Raleigh, said donating her embryos for research seemed like the only way to avoid wasting their potential.

"The thought of throwing an embryo away just isn't a pleasant thought," Betancourt said. "It seemed wrong. ... Given all the developments you hear about with stem-cell research, it felt like that truly was a potential good for society."

Betancourt, who has two children conceived through fertility treatment, said she wasn't concerned about scientists destroying a potential life. "If you take the emotion out of it, rationally, at the stage they were frozen, they really were just a group of cells," she said.

A half-million embryos

The study found that many patients struggled, often for years after completing treatment, to choose between unappealing options for their embryos. That indecision is likely among the reasons that there are now at least a half-million frozen embryos in the United States, many of which have been in storage for years.

The embryos, created by doctors from a couple's sperm and egg, are circular clusters of about 200 cells. Embryonic cells are valuable for research because they can turn into any of the body's more than 200 cell types. They can be used to study confounding diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

But the idea of using human embryos for science -- and destroying them in the process -- has stirred a national controversy since scientists isolated embryonic stem cells for the first time in 1998. President George W. Bush has barred federal funding of research using new embryos and restricted funding for the embryonic stem cell lines already in use.

In donating them to science, Betancourt took advantage of an option that many fertility patients aren't offered. While some clinics offer research donation, there is not yet broad demand for embryos.

No funding, no study

Brigid Hogan, chairwoman of the department of cell biology at Duke University, said there is not enough funding available to fully research the embryonic stem-cell lines already available to scientists. Until there is, there will be little use for the hundreds of thousands of available embryos.

Only one scientist at Duke is now working with embryonic stem cells, she said.

"Even if somebody said, 'I've got 100 embryos I'm donating tomorrow,' I think there are many places that would just say, 'We don't have the funding,' " Hogan said.

Lyerly said another discovery in the study is that many couples never have conversations with their doctors about the possibilities for their embryos. Most have only three choices: use them for treatment, destroy them or continue to store them indefinitely.

Waiting to decide

Lynnelle Fowler-McDonald, a study participant from Durham County, said she has chosen the last option. She went through three attempts at in-vitro fertilization and never had a child. She had one frozen embryo left when she decided she could not endure more treatment and has not been able to decide what to do with it.

"It takes your psyche in a different direction when you start thinking about it," Fowler-McDonald said. "You start thinking about everything that you went through."

But she says she knows one thing: She will not donate her embryo to another couple, when she never got the child she wanted so badly. She said that she is willing to consider research donation, but that she has no information about how to do so.

When she does make a decision, Fowler-McDonald defies anyone to judge it.

"Unless these people have gone through this procedure, unless you can tell me you wanted a child and don't have a child," she said, "you can't tell me what I should do." or 919-829-4881


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