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Few couples willing to donate embryos
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A microscopic view of colonies of human embryonic stem cells being studied in a University of Wisconsin research lab. The colonies are the rounded, dense masses of cells. (Photo courtesy of the University of Wisconsin-Madison)
There's a lot of debate about human embryos these days. Embryos have stem cells -- almost magical cells that can become any tissue in the human body. Researchers say stem cells might one day be used to save adult lives. This month, the University of Minnesota announced it will expand its stem cell research to include donated human embryos. Few couples are willing to donate embryos to research, or even to other couples that want to have a baby. We found one who did.

Duluth, Minn. — Mary and Bob Fusillo really wanted to have kids, but they couldn't. So a doctor suggested they try in-vitro fertilization. A clinic in Texas created embryos to implant in Mary Fusillo's uterus. The Fusillos were lucky. It worked the first time, and they had twins -- a boy and a girl.

And they still had four embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen at the clinic.

"Every year we would get this bill for a couple hundred dollars to keep them frozen in the liquid nitrogen," Mary says. "And my husband would kind of wave the bill in my face and say, 'What are we going to do?'"

I circled the parking lot for half an hour just sobbing, knowing that when I went in there, this is it. I was never going to have any more children come out of my body.
- Mary Fusillo, on donating frozen embryos to an infertile couple

Mary Fusillo told her husband they should wait. Maybe they'd decide to have another baby. She remembers what he said.

"You can have another baby when it snows in August in Houston."

So the Fusillos had to make a choice. They could keep the embryos frozen, or discard them, or donate them for research, or donate them to another couple.

They decided to donate the embryos.

Only a small percentage of couples choose to donate. That's one reason there are hundreds of thousands of human embryos frozen at clinics around the country.

Bob Fusillo wanted to donate the embryos to research.

"My mother is diabetic and had a very severe stroke almost four years ago," he says. "I've heard reports and speculation that stem cell research could be used to help diabetics and help stroke victims and things like that. I think of my mother, and how if it were possible, I'd like to see some research go toward helping people like her."

"That was my number one choice," Mary Fusillo says, agreeing with Bob.

"Unfortunately, when I was doing this was the summer of Bush's 'stem cell talk,'" she says, referring to President Bush's call to curtail the use of embryos in research back in 2001. "No clinic would take them."

So donation to research was out.

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Image Lab work

Fertility treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars, and they can be unpleasant. After going through a "cycle" of treatments, the Fusillos say they couldn't bring themselves to discard their extra embryos.

They decided they would donate them to another couple. Bob had no problem with the idea. Mary liked the idea, too -- but when she drove to the clinic to sign the papers, she got cold feet.

"I circled the parking lot for half an hour just sobbing, knowing that when I went in there, this is it," she remembers. "I was never going to have any more children come out of my body."

She did sign. The embryos went to another couple.

Then Mary Fusillo changed jobs. She'd been a nursing administrator for years in hospitals, and she switched to reproductive medicine. Now she works in an infertility clinic in the state of Virginia. She's also on the national board of directors of Resolve, a non-profit group that works on behalf of infertile couples.

Resolve is trying to get more couples to donate their frozen embryos to other couples, but Mary Fusillo says it's a tough sell.

"Very, very few people will donate their embryos," she says.

She says some people think of each embryo as a human life. Other people say they'll donate their extra embryos, but then they have a baby and they see the remaining embryos as the baby's siblings. But she says the biggest hurdle for most women is the same one she faced.

"I'm in a twins mom group," she says. "Most twins these days are from infertility treatments, so most my friends did infertility treatment."

One day, she says, the women in the group were talking about their frozen embryos.

"One woman had like a 10 or 11-year-old," Fusillo remembers, "And she said, 'I'm not going to give mine up or destroy them until I'm 50 years old. I figure when I'm 50, I'm going to decide I'm never going to have another baby.'"

Fusillo says the woman was 40 at the time.

"So she's going to keep them frozen for another 10 years," Fusillo says. "There's (other) embryos that have been frozen for 15 years."

Mary Fusillo expects the number of frozen embryos in the United States to keep growing. She says there are nearly 500 infertility clinics in the country, and many of them are doing a brisk business.

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