I’ve never had a lot of patients asking for IVF; probably because I’ve worked in areas where people had kids early, and had fewer fertility problems.

But infertility is a heartbreaking problem (been there, done that).

Adoption is difficult, and many people yearn for a child of their own bodies, and as a result we have hormones and IVF.

Most are older couples, often in a second marriage or women who married later, who after trying for years to have a child went to see if IVF would produce children. Many had sought adoption but found the wait too long or the money too much and the older children who are available seem too difficult for inexperienced parents to parent. (again, been there, done that: Older children, who often suffer from scars of abuse, are not for everyone to parent).

So for them, IVF is a miracle. They often see the embryos as their children, and don’t ask what they will do with these unborn offspring whose chance of life is often decided by chance.

So what to do with the leftover embryos?

Alas, most people “forget” they exist: part of this is ignorance that they exist, but often it is a way to not make a decision about them, because the “decision” means to have a child one might not want (or might not be able to carry), to let another couple to adopt it (facing the horror of one’s child being raised by another) or destroying the embryo, a decision that leads to guilt and nightmares.

Now, there is another alternative, to “donate” them to science, for experimentation or for use to get embryonic stem cells. In polls this is a popular choice, but in reality few parents do so: again, that primeval illogical voice inside, aka “yuck factor” aka conscience, stops many people from doing this.

But the other problem with using “left over” embryos to get stem cells is that, being old, they are less likely to be useful. So actually, most embryonic stem cells come from poor women who agree to harvest their eggs, and since the going “rate” for US college students is $10 000, these eggs usually go to infertile older couples, and there is a growing business hiring third world women to produce eggs for embryonic stem cell research. This has health risks, but in the entrepeneurial spirit few except prolifers and those on the left who see this as human rights abuse of poor women seem to worry about it.

But now Father Berg in National Review reports on the latest scam to get embryo parts to harvest stem cells: give them to this company and they’ll produce your very own stem cell line, quick and easy, and useful for you and your family to use.

from the company’s website:

StemLifeLine provides a fourth option for these embryos — to generate personal stem cell lines that may, in the future, benefit you and your family. StemLifeLine is proud to offer this service to individuals with remaining embryos after in vitro fertilization.

Big “yuck” factor here.

My “take” as a doctor is: wait a second: the DNA might not match. Such stem cells would be no closer than those from a sister or brother.

Other docs agree. From Berg’s article:
Dr. Markus Grompe, director of the Oregon Stem Cell Center, and senior fellow of the Westchester Institute, noted that “if either parent were to use tissues derived from their own IVF embryos, full-fledged immunosuppression would be essential. Recourse to these tissues would give the parents no therapeutic advantage whatsoever.”

But of course, we are talking about old embryos. As I mentioned above, scientists don’t want to use old embryos to get stem cell lines, because a lot of them are old and don’t work as good. And not every embryo will yield stem cells.
Well, Berg has the mathematics of harvesting in his article:

According to the 2003 Rand study — an analysis of the few published studies available — technicians (including those at StemLifeLine) would have to allow for the fact that: a) only 65 percent of frozen embryos will survive the thawing process; b) only 25 percent of those will then develop to the blastocyst stage (approximately 6 or 7 days of development, the point at which embryonic stem cells are harvested from the embryo); and c) based on the past ten years’ experience of deriving stem cells from frozen IVF embryos, arguably only 15 percent of those embryos will yield stem cell lines..

Of course, this leads to the next step: want to get stem cells? Why not just create brand new ones, which have a much higher yield rate?

Now, parents needing bone marrow transplants have gone to the expense of having a baby to help their offspring, so I suspect that they would go to the expense of an IVF is the stem cells would save the life of their child, and worry about the morality later.

But the dirty little secret is that so far there is no proof that embryonic stem cells work better than stem cells from adult sources like bone marrow or other tissue. And adult stem cells have the advantages of having the same DNA and therefore fewer immunulogical problems

A quick click on the company’s website shows a happy couple with two happy children walking happily and healthy….and all I could think of was Mark Twain’s a saying: The more he preached of Virtue, the more we checked our wallets….

From an ethical standpoint, destroying one’s offspring to save a life would be perhaps understandable, but for a company to advertise that you pay to do so, when there are no known benefit is indeed ethically challenged.

Hint to parents: have the kid and save it’s umbilical cord. It’s cheaper, you get a lot more stem cells from it, and it potentially works just as well.


Nancy Reyes is a retired physician living in the Philippines. Her website is Finest Kind Clinic and Fishmarket, and she writes medical essays at Hey Doc Xanga Blog

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