Using Stored Embryos For Research Is Fine By Fertility Patients

June 22, 2007

DURHAM, N.C. -- Six out of 10 of those who have surplus embryos stored after in-vitro fertilization would be willing to donate them for stem cell research, a new survey showed.

DURHAM, N.C., June 22 -- Six out of 10 of those who have surplus embryos stored after in-vitro fertilization would be willing to donate them for stem cell research, a new survey showed.

The findings suggest that many more stored embryos would be available for stem cell research than had earlier been estimated, according to Anne Drapkin Lyerly, M.D., of Duke University, and Ruth Faden, Ph.D., of Johns Hopkins.

The research -- derived from a survey of 2,210 patients at nine infertility centers across the U.S. -- shed light on how the people most involved in the contentious stem cell/embryo debate would resolve the issue, the authors reported in the online issue of Science.

"Until now, the debate about federal funding for embryonic stem cell research has been dominated by lawmakers and advocates," Dr. Faden added. "But what about the preferences of infertility patients, who are ethically responsible for, and have legal authority over, these embryos?"

Once they have succeeded in having a baby, "many patients face what is often a morally difficult task of deciding what to do with their remaining cryopreserved embryos," the authors noted.

Options include destroying the preserved embryos, donating them to another couple, or donating them for research, they said.

How Americans resolve those moral decisions is largely unknown, although studies in other countries have suggested that from 30% to 54% of infertility patients would donate surplus embryos for research.

To get U.S. data, the researchers sent questionnaires to patients at infertility centers in California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon, and Pennsylvania.

All told, 1,244 patients (or 60%) returned the survey, including 1,020 respondents who reported that they had embryos stored at the time.

The study found:

  • 49% of those with stored embryos were either very or somewhat likely to donate them for general research.
  • If stem cells were to be derived, 60% would donate the embryos.
  • 62% would donate for research to understand or develop treatment for human disease or injury.
  • 61% would donate for research to improve infertility treatments.
  • 28% would be somewhat or very likely to donate embryos to improve cloning techniques for medical science.

Down on the list of options was donating the embryo to another couple -- only 22% were somewhat or very likely to follow that course, slightly less than the proportion who were prepared simply to thaw the embryos and discard them.

Estimates published in 2003 suggested there were 400,000 stored embryos in the U.S. but that only about 11,000 would be available for research and that technical limitations meant that only about 275 new cell lines could be derived from them.

Instead, this study suggests, about 65,000 to 100,000 embryos might be available, which might conservatively be expected to give rise to between 2,000 and 3,000 viable stem cell lines, the authors said.

"This has significant implications for potential policy change on stem cell research," Dr. Lyerly said.