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Researchers trying to find new ways to help couples have babies have conducted a controversial study. It involved paying women in Mexico to be artificially inseminated so their embryos could be flushed out of their bodies and analyzed. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein has our report.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Lots of couples go through IVF these days to have babies. Some do it to make sure they don't have a baby with a terrible genetic disease. They do that by creating and testing their embryos in the lab to make sure they're healthy.
SANTIAGO MUNNE: For couples that have genetic abnormalities and are at risk of transmitting them - cystic fibrosis, thalassemia and so on - by selecting the embryos that are not affected, they can have a normal baby.
STEIN: That's Santiago Munne, a reproductive geneticist. He and his colleagues decided to see if there's a way to test embryos without going through IVF by making embryos inside women instead of in dishes in the lab and then flushing them out of women's wombs for testing to see if the embryos created that way are OK.
MUNNE: The advantage is that these embryos are conceived naturally, so you don't need the in vitro fertilization to do the genetic testing of the embryos. So in theory, it should be much cheaper.
STEIN: Munne and his colleagues paid 81 women in Mexico to get their ovaries stimulated with hormones and then artificially inseminated them. Some of the women also got their eggs removed and fertilized in the lab through standard IVF.
MUNNE: This is the first time that human embryos conceived naturally have been analyzed genetically to see if they are normal or not.
STEIN: And they found that the embryos created inside women's bodies look about the same genetically as those created in lab dishes and, physically, look a little better.
MUNNE: We have now a method that can produce embryos that are of good quality or better than in vitro fertilization.
STEIN: Munne says the approach could also offer lesbian couples another way to share the experience of having a baby.
MUNNE: You could use this for lesbian couples that - one wants to conceive the embryos, and the other wants to carry the embryos. So one could have the embryos fertilized, and then the embryos are transferred to the other woman to carry them so they can share the pregnancy.
STEIN: Other experts agree the research could be valuable. Catherine Racowsky is president of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine.
CATHERINE RACOWSKY: This is a really well-done study. We may actually have here a technology that, in the future, may be very helpful for couples trying to complete their families at a lower cost, which is important.
STEIN: But others say the research is very troubling.
LAURIE ZOLOTH: What this essentially does is use a woman's body as a petri dish.
STEIN: Laurie Zoloth is a bioethicist at the University of Chicago.
ZOLOTH: And there's something about that that seems so profoundly disturbing.
STEIN: The women were paid about $1,400, which is equivalent to about two months' average wages in Mexico. They had to get injections of powerful, possibly dangerous hormones, and some women had abortions when tests indicated some of the embryos may still be in their bodies.
ZOLOTH: I think this research was unethical.
STEIN: Others agree that the research raises serious ethical issues.
NILS LAMBALK: Yes, it's quite a series of things that do raise your eyebrows.
STEIN: Nils Lambalk is the editor-in-chief of the journal Human Reproduction. He says the journal only decided to publish the study after taking extra steps to verify that the ethical issues raised by the research had been thoroughly reviewed.
LAMBALK: We could have made ourselves very easy by just saying, no, no, we don't want this, but we decided to go the hard way and publish it.
STEIN: Because, he says, the findings could be useful, and the editors wanted to draw attention to the ethical concerns. For his part, Munne defends the research. He says the study was approved by two independent review boards and that women routinely get paid to donate eggs to help infertile women in the United States.
MUNNE: There isn't a difference between an egg donation cycle and what we did here.
STEIN: The embryos the researchers produced in the study were used to create at least five pregnancies and three babies.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
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