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Alleged Gift of Tissue Taints Embryo Research

Science: Accusations that UC's Dr. Ricardo H. Asch gave eggs to zoologist draws spotlight to controversial field.

February 12, 1996|JULIE MARQUIS and LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

What renowned University of California fertility specialist Ricardo H. Asch allegedly handed to a Wisconsin zoologist was, by any measure, a precious gift.

In a country where relatively few couples donate their reproductive tissues for experiments, Asch bestowed 21 freshly inseminated eggs and three frozen embryos on Gerald Schatten from 1993 to 1994, UC San Diego officials say. The well-known scientist then used them to probe the mysteries of why some fertility treatments fail.

There was just one problem: The eggs and embryos were stolen, UC San Diego officials say. Last month, the university announced that, unbeknownst to Schatten, Asch had not obtained patients' consent to give away their viable eggs and embryos. Nor had he obtained approval from the university.

Whatever promise the tissues held for science, some researchers fear Asch's alleged gift will be best remembered for the taint it brought to the entire field of embryo research.

Worse, the accusation--the latest development in a long-running UC fertility scandal--has heaped more controversy on a scientific enterprise imperiled by political opposition. Some worry it has given fresh ammunition to abortion foes who object to tampering with incipient human lives.

"This is the last thing we want, to have this [Asch's case] reflect on all the clinical and basic research that is being done," said Dr. Mitchell Karlen, a Beverly Hills surgeon who is part of an American Medical Assn. task force now establishing guidelines on assisted reproductive technology.

The stain on embryo research may grow: Two former patients at Asch's UCI clinic have sued the doctor, alleging he sent their embryos, without permission, for study at a Cornell University lab. UCI's investigations of possible research misconduct at the Orange County clinic are not finished.

Through his attorney, Asch has denied he gave any embryos to Schatten and blamed any mishaps at UCI and UC San Diego clinics on university employees.

UC San Diego's accusations against Asch came just days after Congress passed a law virtually banning federal funding for research on human embryos for the rest of the year. Though research on embryos created outside the womb has not been federally funded since the 1970s, the formal action sent a chilling message to scientists who had been hopeful of federal dollars under a Democratic administration.

The Asch affair and the federal ban are "a very serious one-two punch" to embryo research, said Arthur Caplan, an ethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. "On the one hand you've got questions raised about the integrity of the field; on the other hand, you have limits put on fundamental research . . . [that were] tossed in as a pawn in a big political game."

The ban, critics argue, is counterproductive.

The UC fertility scandal--which also involves allegations Asch and his partners implanted stolen embryos in scores of patients--has raised a cry for a greater level of scrutiny in the field. In the research arena, funding from the National Institutes of Health brings federal oversight--and researchers face the risk of losing the money if they don't toe the line.

Yet the federal government has stepped back just when circumstances suggest it should take a leadership role, some critics charge.

"Private researchers can do whatever they please and whatever they can get away with, and it can go on anywhere," said Dartmouth College ethicist Ronald M. Green. "You can do it in your kitchen."

While many political conservatives hope the absence of federal support will curtail research, the lack of federal oversight leaves privately funded researchers too much to their own devices, he said.

"People fail to realize there are two reasons for wanting federally funded research," said Green, who sat on an NIH panel that recommended federal funding for limited embryo research in 1994. "The research is important medically and clinically. But also, in the absence of federal funding, the research goes on anyway . . . without review."

The congressman who sponsored the ban argued that even if the government funded such research, officials still could not exert control over those who rely on private dollars. Rep. Jay Dickey (R-Ark.) stopped short of endorsing a ban on privately funded research, but he drew a clear line at anything smacking of a federal endorsement.

"It starts out with a base of respect for the sanctity of life," Dickey said. "Some of us have the perspective that at conception, life begins. . . . We're just saying we don't want federal funds to go to experimenting with that life, terminating it or causing risk or harm to it."

Most embryo research in the United States takes place in a few dozen centers and is privately funded. The portion done at universities is sometimes--but not always--reviewed by internal boards, with varying degrees of vigilance.

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