Creation of Human Embryos for Research Spurs Ethical Debate

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July 11, 2001 (Washington) -- Scientists at the Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk have become the first to create human embryos not for pregnancy but for the sole purpose of generating stem cells for medical research, raising objections from religious conservatives and others opposed to such use.

Stem cells, which have the potential to become any type of cell in the human body, may be able to repair damaged tissue and thus may have applications for treating many types of diseases that currently have no cure, such as diabetes and Parkinson's disease. But right-to-life groups and some in the medical community oppose the use of embryonic stem cells because embryos have to be destroyed to obtain the cells.

Most embryonic stem cells for research purposes come from a reproductive technique known as in vitro fertilization, in which several embryos are implanted into a uterus to produce pregnancy. This technique generally results in excess embryos that are not needed and which can then be used for stem cell research.

But in the research conducted at EVMS's Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine, scientists used sperm and eggs from 14 anonymous donors to create embryos that would be used for medical research only.

The investigators write in the July issue of the medical journal Fertility and Sterility that their protocol "was more ethical" because the donors knew prior to their participation that no pregnancy would occur with the embryos, whereas spare embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures are "originally intended to result in a pregnancy."

Last year, the NIH issued guidelines that allowed scientists who receive federal funds to harvest stem cells from embryos but only so long as the embryos were initially created with the intention of producing a pregnancy. These guidelines have been blocked by President George W. Bush, however, who is reviewing the issue and is expected to soon announce his decision on whether to allow federal funds to be used for embryonic stem cell research.

EMVS is a private institution and does not receive federal funds.

The research "removes some issues but creates others," says Felicia Cohn, PhD, adjunct professor of bioethics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

It removes the concerns of parents of the embryos who may have expected the cells to be used for pregnancy and not for research, Cohn says. But it introduces the issue of bringing together sperm and egg without the intention of creating human life, which is vehemently objected to by Catholics, she says.

Several right-to-life groups have voiced their objections to the study, including the National Right to Life Committee and the American Life League, or ALL.

The ALL objects to any destruction of embryos, even if it occurs during in vitro fertilization, Father Joseph C. Howard tells WebMD. Howard is director of the ALL's American Bioethics Advisory Commission.

Cohn notes that the medical community is split on this contentious issue, with some physicians and researchers taking the view that destroying embryos in the name of medical research is not a great thing to do, but that the potential benefits of treating disease outweigh the negatives. Others adhere to the view that destruction of human life at any stage is fundamentally wrong.

The national debate over whether to ban federal funds for the use of embryonic stem cell research may be a moot point, says Ronald M. Green, PhD, director of the ethics institute at Dartmouth College, in Hanover, N.H.

"If anybody thinks they're going to prohibit this, they're really misguided," he says, noting that a ban would be almost unenforceable. In addition, private funding for this type of research is readily available.

The ALL wants Bush to ban the use of federal funds for such use, but Howard agrees that such a ban would do little to stop the practice among private industry. Only congressional legislation would affect that, and ALL is "in touch with very prominent senators and congressman" in regard to this, Howard says.

But Green predicts Congress would have trouble passing that type of legislation. It would be difficult to ban the creation and destruction of embryos strictly for research purposes when it's permissible in the process of in vitro fertilization to make many more embryos than are needed and which are ultimately destroyed, he says.

The Jones Institute team plans to request approval for extending their protocol to use the stem cells for treating disease, according to the published study. But a university representative who spoke on the condition of anonymity tells WebMD the researchers have not yet applied for or received approval for this.

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