Definition Of Embryo Death Criteria May Open Doors For Stem Cell Research

Filed in Science, Social IssuesTags: Sanctity of Life, Stem Cells

From Medical News Today comes this interesting report that could perhaps avert some of the ethical controversy surrounding the use of IVF embryos:

A research team from Columbia has, for the first time, identified criteria through which embryo death can be confirmed. The implications for stem cell research are huge - by confirmation of embryo death, embryos could be harvested, just as organs are for transplantation, in order to generate stem cells for research and, ultimately, therapeutic purposes.

The details:

They found that many nonviable embryos (n = 142 out of 444) were hypocellular and lacked compaction on embryonic day 5 (ED5). All of the hypocellular embryos failed to progress to compacted morula or normal blastocyst when observed further. The research team conclude that arrested development at the multicellular stage on ED5 indicates an irreversible loss of integrated organic function, and hence, the condition of death.

The practical implication:

Approximately a fifth of all embryos generated for in vitro fertilization - conventionally classified as ‘nonviable' - are in fact dead on ED5 by Landry's criteria... The researchers propose that the ethical framework currently used for obtaining essential organs from deceased persons for transplantation could be applied to the harvesting of live cells from dead human embryos for the creation of stem cells.

If these embryonic death criteria can be further investigated and confirmed, and if such nonviable embryos can, in fact, yield usable tissue for research, then these researchers may have just found a way to harvest embryonic stem cells without the ethical/moral stigma of having destroyed viable human life in order to do so.

I would guess that these observations are in their infancy with respect to practical use and widespread acceptance, but for the time being, I'll take a "cautiously optimistic" stance.