A UK fertility centre is being allowed to ask women undergoing IVF to donate eggs to therapeutic cloning research for cheap treatment for the first time.
Women having IVF will be able to donate eggs for research
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority has issued a licence to the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre at Life to permit the practice.
But the HFEA has also announced a consultation on the wider issues around egg donation for research.
There are concerns women could feel pressured to give over their eggs.
The Newcastle-based team is investigating stem cell therapies for conditions including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and Parkinson's.
The human eggs which are donated to research will be used in the creation of embryos from which stem cells can be derived.
It will be the first time that payment can be given for IVF eggs used in research.
Until now, the researchers have been permitted to ask women to donate eggs which have not fertilised for research.
It was an egg obtained in this way which was used to create an early-stage cloned human embryo at Newcastle in 2005.
Since last year, the team has also been allowed to ask women having IVF to donate "spare" eggs, if they produced 12 or more eggs.
But the team said the number of eggs this produced was too small.
The HFEA licence will now 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.
Cutting the cost of IVF through egg sharing is currently permitted in the UK, if eggs are donated to another woman undergoing treatment.
However, it will be at last a year before the Newcastle scheme is up and running as researchers now need to apply for funding.
The team also want it to be possible for women not undergoing IVF to donate their eggs.
So-called altruistic donation is already used to help infertile couples conceive.
The HFEA is to consider if Newcastle should allowed to permitted to pursue altruistic donation as part of its consultation.
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.
Angela McNab, chief executive of the HFEA, said: "We know there are a wide variety of views on the subject of donating eggs for research and we anticipate a strong response to the consultation from professional groups, scientists, clinicians and patients as well as the public.
"It's important to capture those views and to understand the issues that are unique to donating eggs for research rather than for treatment so that any policies made as a result of the consultation are well-balanced and evidence-based."
Professor Alison Murdoch, who leads the Newcastle team, said the HFEA's decision was "a step forward for stem cell research and medicine generally".
She added: "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.
"All patients involved in egg sharing need IVF treatment to help them have a baby.
"We are helping them to have treatment they may not otherwise be able to afford.
"There is no additional physical risk to the woman as a result of egg sharing."
Professor Murdoch said there were many scientific difficulties to be overcome before the research led to stem cell treatments.
And she admitted it was "unusual" for the HFEA to begin a consultation after issuing a licence.
Professor Peter Braude, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Kings College London said: "This is a difficult situation because there is a strong need for eggs for research.
"However, this licence surprises me as it is inconsistent with the stance of not paying for eggs for research.
"But the HFEA is about to embark on a consultation, so we will shall wait to see what the public thinks of this issue."
Dr Gillian Lockwood, chair of the ethics sub-committee of the British Fertility Society, said: "It is unlikely to impact negatively on the availability of eggs for donation to recipients, and some women who need to undergo IVF to achieve a family may indeed prefer to donate anonymously to such important medical research."
But Josephine Quintavalle, a co-founder of the Hands Off Our Ovaries group, said: "The primary concern should be what is in the woman's best interests.
"That is to have the most minimally invasive treatment with the minimum use of drugs and the minimum harvesting of eggs."
Ms Quintavalle said the needs of researchers, who would want as many eggs as possible, would go against that.
And she said she was concerned over how the option of donating eggs in return for cheaper treatment would be presented to women.
"It is coercion under another name."
She also criticised the HFEA's handling of the issue, saying it was the "worst example of HFEA arrogance" she had seen.