WEDNESDAY, June 20 (HealthDay News) -- About half the patients being treated at U.S. fertility clinics say they'd be willing to donate their unused embryos for stem cell research, a new survey reports.
The findings, released Wednesday by the journal Science, mean that up to 10 times as many embryos would be available for research than previously estimated, should U.S. legislators ever permit their wider use.
However, such a move also became less of a possibility on Wednesday, after President Bush for the second time vetoed a bill that would have loosened federal restrictions on funding for embryonic stem cell research.
Reacting to the study findings, co-researcher Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly, of Duke University, said, "We were surprised. These were quite dramatic findings."
"When we asked these infertility patients about what they thought they would do with embryos, 50 percent said that they would be likely to donate some or all of them for research, and 60 percent said that they would be likely to donate them for stem cell research," added Lyerly, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Duke University and core faculty at Duke's Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities and History of Medicine.
"This is a dramatic increase in what we might estimate as the number of embryos available for research purposes," she said.
The other study author was Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethnics. The study will also be published in the July 6 print edition of Science.
If only 25 percent of the 400,000 frozen embryos thought to be stored in the United States were donated, that would give scientists 100,000 embryos (vs. 11,000 previously estimated), resulting in 2,000 to 3,000 viable stem cell lines.
In addition, the authors pointed out, the paper adds an important new voice to the chorus surrounding stem cell research.
"We understand the perspective of lawmakers, advocates, etcetera, but we really didn't know what the preferences of infertility patients were or what animated their decisions," Lyerly said. "We wanted to bring their voices into the national debate and also try to understand how these decisions were made."
"We understood that infertility patients were facing a very difficult moral decision about what to do with excess embryos left over after infertility treatment, and these are the people who have interfaced most intimately with moral decision-making around embryos. Yet their perspectives are really absent from national debate," she continued.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, meaning they have the ability to develop into virtually any cell type in the body. The hope is that these cells may one day yield treatments or cures for diseases such as diabetes, liver failure, spinal injury, stroke, Alzheimer's disease and heart disease.
However, harvesting stem cells involves destroying a viable embryo, a practice many Americans object to on moral grounds. Embryonic stem cell research in the United States has been severely limited since August 2001, when Bush placed limits on federal funding of the field. Now, federal funds can only be used to study stem cell lines derived from embryos that had been destroyed before that date.
The bill recently passed by the Democratic-led Congress and now vetoed by Bush sought to lift that restriction. News sources on Wednesday reported that the Democrats do not have enough votes to override a veto.