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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 September 2006, 23:06 GMT 00:06 UK
'Donor eggs for science' debated
Image of a human egg
The eggs would yield stem cells
A fertility watchdog is seeking public opinion on women donating their eggs for scientific research.

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority is asking if IVF patients and women not having treatment should donate, and which checks are needed.

This comes despite permission already being granted to a North East research team to collect eggs for research.

Scientists hope to find new cures for disease through their work, but the egg donors themselves face health risks.

It is our job to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for the patients and donors
Angela McNab
HFEA chief executive

Women who have their ovaries stimulated with drugs to make eggs for harvesting risk a rare, but potentially deadly, condition called ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome.

Some question whether allowing donation for research will limit the ability of clinics to provide egg donor fertility treatment for women.

Others are concerned about the potential risk of women being coerced into donating for research.

For example, a woman who has a partner with a genetic illness that stem cell research might benefit could feel under pressure to donate.

Egg 'shortage'

The Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre is offering to part-fund women's IVF treatment if they donate some of their fresh eggs for research. Before this they relied on 'left-over' eggs discarded during IVF.

Image of Liz Shipley, a patient with MND
Hopefully they can take my eggs and find a cure
Liz Shipley, who has Motor Neurone Disease

Researchers will use the eggs to create cloned early-stage embryos, with the ultimate hope of extracting stem cells that could treat diseases.

Scientists say there is a shortage of fresh eggs for such research, and have asked for women to be able to choose to donate specifically for that purpose.

Altruistic donation is already allowed to help infertile couples conceive.

Critics have accused the HFEA of caving in to pressure from scientists.

Others say the science is still too young to warrant testing on human eggs.

Dr Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory, Kings College London, said it was unethical to use human eggs for therapeutic cloning. "We have no idea of the efficiency of this technique."

Key points
There is a shortage of donor eggs for research and fertility treatment
Scientists can use eggs to obtain stem cells
Stem cell research holds hope of disease treatments and cures
There are ethical and safety concerns around egg donation and stem cell research
The HFEA consultation asks who should be able to donate and what safeguards are needed

But Professor Ian Wilmutt, director of the Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh, said: "Egg donation could provide opportunities to study human inherited diseases that could not be available in any other way."

Angela McNab, chief executive of the HFEA, said: "We know the importance of scientific development, but it is our job to ensure that it is safe and appropriate for the patients and donors that make it possible."

'Cooling off' period

Dr Tony Callard, chairman of the BMA's Ethics Committee, said: "As long as women are properly informed about the procedure and are not pressured to agree, they should be able to consent to egg donation for research."

Josephine Quintavalle, co-founder of the Hands Off Our Ovaries group, said: "Eggs for research is an absolute no-no. The risks are too significant. The cost of even one woman's life is not worth it."

The consultation puts forward a range of suggested safeguards for discussion, including a "cooling-off" period for donors.

Potential donors could also be required to see independent counsellors about the implications of donating to research and be evaluated to check that they have received proper information.

One woman explains why she wants to donate her eggs

'Eggs for research' - Reactions
08 Sep 06 |  Health

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