It’s a new, rather dicey form of life insurance. A company in California called StemLifeLine has announced that it will offer a service to generate stem cells from excess frozen embryos stored after in vitro fertilization (IVF). The company promises a huge potential payoff: the cells could one day be used to treat disease in the buyers or in their families. But the service is already garnering criticism from some scientists and ethicists who say that without current medical uses for those cells, there’s no point in people paying for them.
“I think the company’s website overly hypes what may be possible,” says Lawrence Goldstein, director of the stem-cell research program at the University of California, San Diego. “They are almost guaranteeing that therapies are around the corner, and now is the time to start banking stem cells, but that strikes me as premature for the field.”
The new service is meant to take advantage of a growing interest in the field of regenerative medicine. Stem cells from adult blood or umbilical-cord blood are already used to treat some diseases, including sickle-cell anemia and several forms of leukemia. But these cells are largely limited to treating blood-related disorders and can’t be grown in large numbers. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, can be coaxed to form virtually any type of cell in the body and can theoretically be replicated indefinitely. Scientists are developing ways to use them to replenish cells lost or damaged in ailments such as diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and heart disease. But as of now, those treatments are limited to the lab: no embryonic stem-cell-based therapies are approved for human use.
Couples who have had children via IVF are often left with extra embryos–and the rather difficult decision of what to do with them. As of 2003, an estimated 400,000 embryos remained in cryopreservation in the United States. Embryos can be donated to research or to other couples, destroyed, or left languishing in frozen storage. According to Ana Krtolica, StemLifeLine’s CEO, the inspiration to form the company came from requests from clients at IVF clinics who were donating their embryos to research but wanted to know if they would have access to those cells if they were ever needed. (The answer is no.)
“We had a patient whose husband is a paraplegic,” says Russell Foulk, a member of StemLifeLine’s advisory board andmedical director of the Centers for Reproductive Medicine, a private clinic with offices in Nevada and Idaho. “They wanted to have a child and were excited about the possibility of creating neural cells from the extra embryos.”
The technology to derive these cells is not new. Scientists at StemLifeLine use a similar procedure to that employed by research scientists for almost a decade, although the StemLifeLine scientists have refined it so that the resulting cells are fit for human use. For less than $10,000 (actual price depends on the collaborating IVF clinic), clients can send in their excess embryos and, in return, receive a line of stem cells that have been “quality assured,” meaning they have been checked for the molecular markers that signify that the cells can be differentiated into multiple cell types. The company received certification as a tissue bank from the state of California last month, and it’s in the process of generating cell lines for its first group of clients.