updated 6/20/2007 5:17:58 PM ET 2007-06-20T21:17:58

A majority of couples with stored embryos from fertility treatments say they would be willing to donate unused embryos for stem cell research, says a doctor who surveyed patients.

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“Large numbers of infertility patients ... support using embryos for research, and these are people who have invested emotionally and financially in these embryos,” Dr. Anne Drapkin Lyerly of Duke University said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

Use of stem cells derived from embryos is a moral issue that has troubled politicians, religious and medical leaders and couples with stored embryos. And it’s an issue with strong advocates on both sides.

The problem is, obtaining stem cells kills the embryo.

Many see this as wrong and argue that they are protecting life. That’s what led President Bush to veto a bill Wednesday that would have eased limits on using embryos in research.

Others point out that many stored embryos will be destroyed anyway, and letting them be used in research could lead to lifesaving treatments.

So Lyerly and Ruth R. Faden of Johns Hopkins University decided to ask the opinions of couples who had undergone fertility treatments and who had frozen embryos in storage at treatment centers.

“We knew that infertility patients were facing the morally difficult and very personal decision of what to do with remaining embryos, but we didn’t have a lot of data,” Lyerly said. They thought that by hearing from these people they might be able to improve counseling and clinical care in the future.

In addition, she said, while there has been a very vigorous public debate on the issue, it has been dominated by lawmakers and religious authorities while the people “most personally and intimately involved have been underrepresented, if at all, so we wanted to bring their voices to the center.”

They chose nine fertility centers around the country and randomly selected more than 2,000 couples to be sent questionnaires.

Of 1,020 people who responded by saying they still had embryos in storage, 49 percent said they were likely to donate some or all of them for research. When asked specifically about stem cell research, the portion willing to donate embryos rose to 62 percent.

“It suggests that people are more willing to pursue research when they know more about it and how it might benefit their fellow citizens,” Lyerly said.

She added that research was preferred over donating the embryos to other infertile couples, “which brings into question the idea that the more you care about an embryo, the more you want it to become a child.”

“This has significant implications for potential policy change on stem cell research,” said Lyerly, an obstetrician-gynecologist and bioethicist. She noted that research donations could provide thousands of new stem cell lines for study.

The findings are published in this week’s online edition of the journal Science and will appear in the journal’s July 6 print edition.

Stem cells have attracted research attention because they can develop into any type of cell present in the body. Thus, scientists hope to find ways to use them to treat diseases ranging from autoimmune disorders to cancer, by generating healthy cells to replace damaged ones.

However, federal funding for embryonic stem cell research is limited to research on stem cell lines derived from embryos before August 2001, and may not be used for research in which an embryo is destroyed. Funding from private or state funding sources is growing, but is still insufficient, Lyerly said.

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