There is a lot of hype out there about embryonic stem cells, true and false.

Much of the negative hype is from “pro lifers” who point out (correctly) that most of the actual stem cell therapies so far have come from adult stem cells.

Indeed, adult stem cells are easier to “match” to the person, are more abundant, and since you start out with a lot more cells they have to divide fewer times to get enough–an important fact since cells seem to start getting into trouble after so many divisions, making them prone to tumors both benign and malignant.

But there is also a lot of hype about the promise of embryonic stem cells from people who dislike “prolife” people, but also from companies who need lots of money for research and want taxpayers to give it to them. Investors of course would put up loads of money and ignore the controversy if it paid dividends, but so far as curing things with stem cells, the adult cells are cheaper and easier, so why invest in a company with more hype than results.

But outside the “life” wars, there are a lot of other problems with using embryonic stem cells. Originally it was thought that you could just unfreeze “left over” embryos, of which there are thousands sitting around, and viola: cheap materia.

But it doesn’t work that way. More modern forms of IVF (i.e. test tube babies) are more successful, so doctors no longer need to make as many extra embryos for extra tries. And then a lot of parents who don’t necessarily want their embryo to become another two year old in diapers nevertheless think maybe later, or get queezy about Junior being used as a guinea pig. I used the word “Junior” deliberately because the comedy of the same name brings up in a benign way many of the non logical emotional issues of fertilized embryos.

Another problem with left over embryos is that many that are donated are “old”, and may not work as well. As a result, most doctors to avoid legal hassles, are paying women to donate eggs.

Now, if you are a twenty something student with blond hair, you can put your way through college selling eggs to infertile couples, five thousand dollars a cycle. But there is a worry that the student might underestimate the health problems, both during the donation and long term, caused by this scheme, which is why buying eggs is illegal in many countries..

Women who donate eggs often mix the need for money with the altruistic reason of helping an infertile couple, so shrug off the risk.

As one girl told the BBC:

“It just sounds a good idea, easy money really, and it helps someone out. Cos I’m not using them, so if someone else can it would be good, and also clear me out of a hole too.”

Yet the shortage of freely donated eggs or students willing to donate with payment in advanced countries can’t meet the demand. As a result, Eastern Europe is filling the gap. And indeed, there is already a large business paying Romanian women to donate eggs for infertile couples, many from the UK, and unlike Boston, they are paid only 150 UKpounds per egg cycle.

Again, this has even more ethical worries, since such women really need the money for their families, so would risk overmedication to produce more and more eggs, which could lead to more medical complications: the medical complication rate of giving medicine to make a woman produce eggs is 20% mild to moderate, 1% severe side effects.
Add to the mix the new “demand” for many more fresh eggs for medical research on “stem cells” and you can see the problem. That is why the US National Academy of Sciences recommendation against the use of purchased eggs for research.

Money is a powerful temptation, and there are many countries where a little money under the table will make regulators look the other way.

This is what worries sociologist Catherine Waldby, who has an article in the journal New Genetics and Society.

She notes:

In 2004, UK authorities banned the purchase of eggs from the clinic. There were concerns the clinic was not telling women about the risks involved, or looking after them when things went wrong, Waldby says. Removing eggs involves multiple hormone injections and a surgical procedure.

Some of the Romanian women (who donated such eggs) developed ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which involves painful abdominal inflammation, possible renal failure, infertility and cardiovascular problems, says Waldby….(who then goes on..)

“Both China and India have large, impoverished populations, extensive networks of fertility clinics and burgeoning stem cell industries, setting the scene for exploitative forms of oocyte procurement.”

A college student in Boston who develops complications will probably live. A Romanian woman will have access to some medical care. But in many of these poor countries, the possibility for major complications and death by unethical operators is a very real concern.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the rural Philippines. She writes about medical matters on HeyDoc Xanga Blog

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