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Last Updated: Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 08:28 GMT 09:28 UK
Q&A: eggs from foetuses
BBC News Online looks at the issues behind the controversial plan to use eggs from aborted foetuses for IVF treatment.

What are the researchers doing?

The researchers, from Israel, are exploring the possibility that aborted human foetuses might be a possible source of donor eggs for IVF.

Donor eggs - needed where a woman cannot produce eggs of her own - are in very short supply, not least in the UK, where donors cannot be paid.

However, the human foetus ovary is rich in "primordial follicles" - millions of them, many of which will disappear shortly after birth.

These immature and undeveloped follicles, if they survive, will one day produce eggs.

The researchers want to see if these follicles can be harvested, and matured outside the body so that any resulting egg can be used in IVF.

What are the technical problems?

Taking a slice of ovary tissue from a second or third trimester foetus is technically easy.

However, a primordial follicle is a long way short of producing an egg.

Scientists have developed a number of promising chemicals which act as "growth factors" on follicles, nudging them towards maturity.

But they still do not have the right combination of chemicals to do this to primordial follicles.

The Israeli scientists have managed to keep the follicles alive for four weeks, and tests suggest that these follicles may be beginning to mature slightly.

They are still a long way short of a fully mature follicle with an egg - but it is further than anyone else has got.

Are there any risks associated with using these follicles?

There are a great many unknowns - the vast majority of the follicles in the foetal ovary simply disappear after birth, and no-one knows why.

It is possible they are faulty, and the body simply gets rid of them - so the question is, if these faulty follicles are matured and their eggs used in IVF, what will the end result be?

There are also concerns about whether the special chemicals, even if one day they produce a mature follicle, will have completely mimicked the environment of the body and produced an undamaged egg.

Some scientists fear that subtle genetic damage caused to the follicle and egg would cause problems.

Is this going to happen?

It seems highly unlikely that most countries would be prepared to even contemplate this. The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has already outlawed it.

Pro-life charities believe that the public would never accept a situation in which a foetus could be another child's mother.

However, the researchers believe that somebody, somewhere may one day try this as a fertility technique.

In addition, these are not foetuses aborted at just a handful of weeks - these are second or more likely third trimester foetuses aborted due to other abnormalities.

A supply of such embryos is scant to begin with, and many would be unusable simply because of the defects which led to their abortion.

What do other scientists think?

UK fertility expert Lord Robert Winston said using foetal ovarian tissue was not an answer to the donation problem, and there were other alternatives.

He said scientists were currently looking at using eggs from another source - such as adult ovarian tissue.

Lord Winston told the BBC that in a piece of adult ovarian tissue the size of a pinhead there were around 100 to 200 eggs.

"They could be obtained with a needle biopsy in three to four minutes, painlessly and with informed consent.

"It's very easy to get hold of these eggs. The problem is that once we've got them, we can't mature them.

"Scientists are going to have exactly the same problem with ovarian tissue."

Outrage over aborted eggs plan
01 Jul 03  |  Health
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Q&A: Human cloning
08 Aug 01  |  Science/Nature

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