Scientists at Eastern Virginia Medical School have created human embryos from donated eggs and sperm for the sole purpose of harvesting embryonic stem cells for research, according to a study published Wednesday. Until now, researchers had derived embryonic stem cells from embryos left over from infertility treatments. Other researchers have derived adult stem cells from sources such as fat cells and bone marrow, although scientists say these types of stem cells are not as useful as embryonic stem cells.
In this case, scientists approached donors and informed them that their eggs and sperm would be used to develop embryos for stem-cell research. Embryonic stem cells can mature into any cell or tissue, and scientists say they may someday be used to repair or replace damaged tissue or organs for disorders such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer, Parkinson’s and spinal cord injuries. The results of the work by researchers at the medical school’s Jones Institute for Reproductive Medicine appear in the July issue of the journal Fertility and Sterility, the official publication of the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.
The society believes the researchers are the first in the United States to have created embryos explicitly for stem cell research, and it was impressed with their thorough study of the ethics involved, said society spokesman Sean Tipton. “At one level, it’s cleaner (ethically)” than using leftover embryos, Tipton said Wednesday. “There’s no question as to what you’re going to do with these embryos. You’re going to the individuals upfront. ” A biotech firm, Applied Cell Technology of Massachusetts, has done something similar since early last year, but while it uses donor eggs it does not fertilize them with sperm cells.
Instead, it replaces the nuclei of the donated eggs with genetic material from adult cells, and then clones the results. The company calls the subject of its research an “ovumsum,” not an embryo. President Bush has said he will soon decide whether to allow taxpayer dollars to be used for research on embryonic stem cells. He is under pressure from patient groups that favor the research and opponents who feel the work is inherently unethical. The Jones Institute work was criticized by religious conservatives opposed to embryo research and from others who have been working to find middle ground in the heated political battle.
It’s still killing a human being,” Mary Petchel, president of the Tidewater chapter of the Virginia Society for Human Life, told The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk. Scientists who conducted the work said several review panels had assessed the ethical implications and concluded that the approach was at least as ethical as using spare frozen embryos. The institute’s ethics committee concluded that “the creation of embryos for research purposes was justifiable and that it was our duty to provide humankind with the best understanding of early human development,” the team reported in the journal.
The researchers extracted eggs from 12 women, who had signed detailed informed consent documents and were paid $1,500 to $2,000 each, said William Gibbons, an Eastern Virginia reproductive endocrinologist who was not involved in the work. Of the 162 eggs collected and inseminated by donor sperm, 50 developed into embryos. The researchers destroyed 40 of those to obtain their stem cells, then isolated three lines, or colonies, of stem cells that were maintained in culture.