Cheaper IVF deal on offer when women donate eggs for stem cell research
British women undergoing IVF procedures will soon be able to subsidise their treatment by donating some of their eggs to research.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has granted a licence to the North East England Stem Cell Institute to allow them to approach women undergoing IVF to donate eggs for therapeutic cloning research in exchange for cheaper treatment.
Therapeutic cloning involves creating early embryos to obtain stem cells, the master cells in the body that can develop into any other cell type in order to treat diseases.
At present, only spare embryos left over from fertility treatments are used in stem cell research and scientists have been concerned about a shortage of eggs for research.
Professor Alison Murdoch, North East England Stem Cell Institute in Newcastle says they are investigating stem cell therapies for conditions including Alzheimer’s disease, diabetes and Parkinson’s and the human eggs donated will be used to create stem cells.
Prior to this researchers were allowed to ask women to donate eggs which have not fertilised for research and this is the first time that payment can be given for IVF eggs used in research.
The HFEA made the offer to the centre ahead of the start of a three-month consultation period that will begin in September during which it will consider views on the egg-sharing issue.
The Newcastle team were responsible for creating a cloned early-stage embryo in 2005
Since then the team has also been allowed to ask women having IVF to donate ‘spare’ eggs, if they produced 12 or more eggs but this number of eggs is too small for the purpose of research.
The HFEA licence will in future allow researchers to offer couples who need IVF, but cannot afford it, the chance to have some of their care funded in return for donating eggs for research.
Currently in the UK reducing the cost of IVF through egg sharing is permitted only if eggs are donated to another woman undergoing treatment.
The Newcastle scheme however will not be operational for at least a year as researchers now need to apply for funding.
The team are also pushing for women not undergoing IVF to donate their eggs a process which is already used to help infertile couples conceive.
The three month process, which runs from September to November, will also consider what safeguards are needed to ensure women do not feel coerced into donating their eggs, and how to ensure a patient’s own interests and needs are protected.
According to Angela McNab of the HFEA, they are aware a wide variety of views exist on the subject of donating eggs for research and they expect strong reactions from professional groups, scientists, clinicians and patients as well as the public.
Professor Alison Murdoch, who leads the Newcastle team, says the HFEA’s decision was ‘a step forward for stem cell research and medicine generally’ but she also says ‘it is of paramount importance to ensure that all donors are not recruited to participate in this research against their best interest by coercion or excessive financial inducement.’
Professor Murdoch says there were many scientific difficulties to be overcome before the research led to stem cell treatments and admits it is ‘unusual’ for the HFEA to begin a consultation after issuing a licence.
Some experts are surprised by the move and say even though there is a need for eggs for research the licence is inconsistent with the principle of not paying for eggs for research.
Other groups suggest the option of donating eggs in return for cheaper treatment is another form of coercion and have accused the HFEA of arrogance.
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