25 September 2006
ByAppeared in BioNews 377
British researchers have established a new method of creating stem cells from naturally arrested, or 'dead', IVF embryos. In the journal Stem Cells, the scientists from Newcastle University demonstrated that they used five IVF embryos, that had arrested six to seven days after conception, to create embryonic stem cell (ES cell) lines that were pluripotent and could potentially develop into any type of specialised cells. This new technique could provide an ethically acceptable way of creating stem cells for research into treatments for diseases like diabetes and Parkinson's, the researchers say.
Using the arrested embryos that remain after a couple's IVF procedure would help to resolve the ethical issue of throwing embryos away. Dr. Miodrag Stojkovic, the research team leader, says: 'I think that if you are given donated human embryos...you have a moral duty to use as much of the material as possible - and we have now found that we don't have to discard half of the embryos immediately, as we used to'.
Not only this, but countries such as Germany - who currently have embryo-protection laws banning stem cell extraction from developing IVF embryos - may now be able to undertake their stem cell research more efficiently and without ethical concerns. The laws in these countries do not allow researchers to harvest stem cells from viable embryos, as current techniques result in the destruction of embryos. Arrested embryos could provide a solution, since they are already non-viable prior to stem cell harvesting and therefore are not considered as potential 'persons' to be protected by these laws. Dr. Donald Landry, at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York, recognises this as he comments: 'Regardless of how you feel about personhood for embryos, if the embryo is dead, then the issue of personhood is resolved'.
However, there have been some thought-provoking questions expressed regarding the quality of the stem cells resulting from the arrested embryos. 'If there is something wrong with the embryo that made it arrest, isn't there something wrong with these cells?' asks Dr. George Daley at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. Although there are benefits to be gained from using naturally arrested embryos over developing ones, it appears that more studies into this new approach will be needed for crucial questions, like Daley's, to be answered fully.