Most fertility patients support the option of donating extra embryos from in vitro fertilization to stem cell research, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Nearly two-thirds of fertility patients said they think donating leftover embryos to stem cell research should be allowed, according to the report. It also found that a large percentage of respondents believe they should be allowed to sell extra embryos to other couples.
The survey was born out of the dilemma fertility patients who have been successful in conceiving often face, said Dr. Tarun Jain, the lead author of the study and clinical in vitro fertilization director at UIC.
“These are important practical issues that come up regularly,” he said. “Patients who have undergone in vitro fertilization often have extra embryos that are frozen. They struggle later over what to do.”
Patients’ options include storing the embryos for future use, discarding them, donating them to researchers for stem cell research or selling or donating them to other couples, Jain said.
The study is based on results of a survey of fertility patients at a large university-based fertility center in Illinois. About 750 patients responded.
When asked if using leftover embryos for stem cell research should be allowed, 63 percent said yes, 23 percent said no and 14 percent were unsure.
African-Americans and Hispanics were less likely to approve of using leftover embryos for stem cell research when compared with Caucasians.
Protestant respondents were also less likely to favor use of embryos for stem cell research. Catholic patients surveyed showed the same level of support for stem cell research as the entire population of respondents.
When asked if selling leftover embryos to other couples should be allowed, 45 percent of respondents said yes, while 35 percent said no and 21 percent were unsure.
“I think they have an altruistic motivation,” Jain said. “If they’ve been successful, they want to help other couples. But it could also be that they have also gone through an expensive treatment that is in most places not covered [by insurance], or not fully covered. Couples have often had a significant expense. Some kind of compensation may be appealing for them”
In 2002, a study by the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology found that there were 400,000 embryos in storage in the United States, a number which is likely higher today, experts said.
Storing embryos can become expensive in the long-term, Jain said. At the UIC fertility center, embryos are stored for without charge for the first year and are then moved to a long-term storage facility. Storing embryos costs $400 per year, Jain said.
There are agencies set up to sell extra embryos to couples, but donating can be difficult because agencies that match couples often require fees, Jain explained.
While they expected fertility patients to support stem cell research, experts were surprised that such a large percentage of patients were in favor of embryo-selling, a practice which is condemned by some medical associations.
According to 2006 guidelines by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine and the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, organizations that offer embryo donation may charge a “professional fee” to recipients for thawing the embryos, disease screening and other testing, but “the selling of embryos per se is ethically unacceptable.”
Yuri Verlinsky, president and chief executive officer of the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago, said he’s not surprised with the study’s results. Many of his fertility patients donate extra embryos to stem cell research at the institute, he said.
“We don’t have any shortage of donated embryos for stem cell research,” Verlinsky said.
Verlinsky said he doesn’t expect an increase of fertility patients to donate to research in the future, because the government’s restrictions of federal funding for stem cell research make it difficult for institutions like universities to do stem cell research.
“As soon as there is change in some direction, there will probably be more demand for the surplus embryos,” he said.
Jain said he hopes government agencies will take note of the study’s findings and make changes in their funding restrictions.
“The key part about the study is that the patients are the gatekeepers,” Jain said. “The embryos belong to the patients; they are ultimately in charge of this decision.”