Five hundred frozen human embryos have been donated to the University of Iowa by couples who sought fertility treatments, but they’re not being used in research. Doctor Nicholas Zavazava, a key administrator in the University of Iowa’s medical school, says the embryos aren’t being used in research because there’s too much uncertainty about current state law.

“There’s been a lot of discussion within our own college and there’s been some lack of clarity in terms of the Iowa state law and also because we simply need more resources,” Zavazava says. “This is very, very expensive type research and you really need a state-of-the-art type facility to be able to do that efficiently.” The campaign debate about stem cell research is sparking “unfounded” fears, according to Zavazava.

“We need to calm down the fears that are out there that, you know, there might be some sort of embryo farms,” Zavazava says. “At the end of the day, we are physicians and our primary goal is to help sustain life and we want to help patients as well get better. No matter how discordant our views may be on some of these topics, I think we should remember that our primary objective is to help patients.”

Hollywood star Michael J. Fox has entered the campaign debate, and sparked controversy as opponents of embryonic stem cell research charge Fox skipped his meds to exaggerate his Parkinson’s Disease symptoms when he taped campaign ads. Fox appeared this afternoon in Des Moines to campaign with Democratic gubernatorial candidate Chet Culver.

Kim Lehman of the Iowa Right-to-Life Committee says she’s upset with Culver and other candidates who have made stem cell research a campaign issue. “Some candidates…are saying that embryonic stem cell research is the answer to cures and yet embryonic stem cell research doesn’t even hold a candle to adult stem cell research,” Lehman says. “I think it’s very misleading and I don’t like that research is being politicized the way it is.”

Lehman is also upset with movie star Fox. “He’s against human cloning and yet he has come to the state saying he wants to help reverse our human cloning ban,” Lehman says. “I don’t like the idea that people are not being informed of the potential of adult stem cell research which does not require the killing of an embryo.”

Lehman opposes using those 500 frozen human embryos in Iowa City for research. “We always oppose killing people for research and an embryo is just the very beginning stages of a human being so we don’t believe that’s humane,” Lehman says. “All of those embryos could be adopted through Snowflake Adoption, so I don’t think that’s the direction we should be going.”

Zavazava, the University of Iowa professor of internal medicine, thinks having Fox out talking about embryonic stem cell research is a positive. “I empathize with patients like him and I empathize with him as well. These patients really are the ones that are most desperate and need a form of treatment that can cure their diseases,” Zavazava says. “Getting someone like him as an advocate is a positive thing.” There is embryonic stem cell research occurring in other states, funded by private foundations since current federal funding is limited to the 21 embryonic stem cell lines that existed in 2001.

“There are many (private) institutes and many places within hospitals and private companies who are generating new stem cell lines,” Zavazava says. “In Chicago, for example, they’ve been generating new stem cell lines. At Harvard, of course, they’ve got several facilities there that are generating new stem cell lines.” “We are all trying to find a way which is acceptable to society and which we can all stand behind and it would be a great thing if (the University of Iowa) can be one of the universities which is leading the way.” Zavazava serves as director of transplantation research at the U-of-I.