Donors give eggs, sperm for stem cells
By Christy Oglesby
(CNN) -- Researchers at a Virginia medical school have become the first to create human embryos specifically to harvest stem cells for scientific investigations.
Previously, researchers collected stem cells -- immature cells that can be coaxed into developing into any cell in the body -- from unused embryos remaining at fertility centers. But the Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine at Eastern Virginia Medical School chose to create its own embryos for two reasons.
"The consent of the donors to this process is very clear as opposed to asking someone who created IVF eggs if they would be okay with using them this way," a school spokeswoman said. Second, "there is also the fact that these eggs are younger. · Younger eggs are more viable eggs."
Sperm donors received $50 for their semen and egg donors received $2,000 as compensation, a medical school spokesman said. Specifics of the research appear in the July issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, which was published Wednesday.
Typically, the discarded embryos from in vitro fertilization centers come from people who have been trying to conceive for a long time, possibly indicating that the donors were older people, the spokeswoman said.
Embryonic stem cells are preferable for research because of their immaturity and lack of development. While researchers can derive stem cells from umbilical cord blood, spinal fluid and adult organs, those cells are more differentiated or specialized.
Unspecialized cells are preferable because stem cell tissue lines can become any type of body cell that can be used for therapeutic purposes. Those tissue cells might ultimately lead to cures for conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer's, heart disease and Parkinson's.
When does life begin?
Religious organizations expressed criticism of the research. According to the Associated Press, Mary Pechtel, president of a chapter of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told one newspaper, "It's still killing a human being."
There has been debate whether fertilized eggs that are in a tube, and not a womb, constitute life. Some argue that life begins at the moment of fertilization while others contend implantation in a uterus marks the beginning of life.
"We are opposed to research that kills human embryos. These were way beyond fertilized eggs, they were six-day-old embryos," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director for the National Right to Life.
Johnson said what he finds most appalling about the study was that it originated with the "leading infertility institution in the country. This is the clinic that developed the first successful IVF procedures in the United States."
"We consider it appalling, grotesque and ghoulish," Johnson said, but he said the Jones Institute's actions provide insight into the stem cell research community's intentions. Initially researchers said they would use only leftover embryos for research, but the industry's impatience led to creating embryos, Johnson said. He predicts that researchers will begin seeking federal funding to create embryos and then to clone them, eliminating the necessity of paying donors.
Researchers collected 162 eggs from 12 donors and used standard in vitro fertilization techniques. Insemination yielded 110 fertilized eggs and 50 matured to blastocysts -- hollow, fluid-filled cavities surrounded by single cells. Scientists treated 40 of those blastocysts to yield three healthy embryonic stem cell lines. The tissue lines are in various stages of evaluation.
President Bush met with bioethicists Wednesday to determine if stem cell researchers should receive federal funds. Currently there is a ban on the use of federal funds for human embryo research, but there are no restrictions on privately funded research such as the work done at the Jones Institute. Nine states have bans on embryo research, according to the Jones Institute study.
The Jones Institute Ethics Committee consulted with clergy, legal professionals and ethicists to determine if creating embryos for research purposes was appropriate and concluded that it was. Groups at the Eastern Virginia Medical School and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital reviewed and approved the study protocol.
"I am impressed with the thoughtful approach taken with the ethical issues involved in this study," John Robertson, co-chair of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine's ethics committee stated in a press release. "It provides a model for the scrutiny that research of this kind should receive."
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