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Researchers endorse using more fresh stem cells

June 12, 2008

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Governments worldwide should approve the use of fresh human embryos in stem cell research and follow Canada’s guidelines for permitting the practice.

That’s the view of developmental biologist Bruce Brandhorst, chair of SFU’s molecular biology and biochemistry department, and seven other researchers published in a commentary entitled The Use of Fresh Embryos in Stem Cell Research: Ethical and Policy Issues. The opinion piece appears in the May 2008 issue of Cell Stem Cell, a leading international journal on stem cell research.

Five of the authors are current or former members of the Stem Cell Oversight Committee (SCOC) of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). Brandhorst is a current member. The SCOC oversees the interpretation and application of guidelines for research involving human embryonic stem cells in Canada.

The CIHR created the guidelines and the oversight committee in 2005 to resolve policy and ethical issues.

Canada is the only country with a policy that explicitly addresses the ethical use of fresh human embryonic stem cells to propagate new stem cell lines. The stem cells are derived from excess embryos created in fertility clinics. These embryos are normally stored frozen until patients no longer want them.

There is a worldwide demand for new embryonic stem cell lines to test new therapies for diseases such as diabetes and Parkinson’s. The authors argue that fresh embryos, even those that are unsuitable for use in fertility clinics, have proven to be useful sources of embryonic stem cells for research, such as drug testing for treatment of hereditary diseases. Yet few countries have policies concerning the use of fresh embryos and some ban their use.

"Approximately 35 per cent of frozen embryos do not survive the freeze-thaw process," says Brandhorst. "So more embryos are required to produce stem cell lines from frozen-thawed embryos than from fresh ones."

Brandhorst adds that more than 100,000 potentially useful fresh human embryos are discarded by fertility clinics each year because they fail quality or genetic tests for implantation.
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