A controversial scheme to extend the practise of 'egg sharing' has been approved by the UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) to provide greater numbers of eggs for embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research. The practise of egg-sharing is currently allowed where a woman may receive discounted iIVF treatment in return for donating some of her eggs. This is the first time the system has been approved in order to derive eggs for research. Treatment at the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre, which will offer the scheme, usually costs £3,500, if a woman agrees to surrender half of her derived eggs to scientists the fee will be halved. The eggs will then be used by scientists from Newcastle and Durham Universities to create embryos from which they will attempt to derive stem cells. Until now scientists have been restricted to using 'left-over' eggs from IVF treatment, these are usually poor quality and are already older than those that will be donated through the new scheme. The cost will be met by the North-East England Stem Cell Institute (Nesci). It is hoped that one donor per week will be recruited and that each new recruit will donate six to ten eggs for the research.
The HFEA has also announced a public consultation, to run from September until November, to assess the opinion of the British public on the ethical status of egg donation for research. There are some risks involved in removing eggs, whether used in IVF or for research purposes, including ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome. The HFEA said that the progress of the egg sharing initiative in Newcastle would be closely monitored and would be used to provide data for the consultation. The Scottish Council on Human Bioethics (SCHB) commented that it considers the move to be 'scandalous' and that it 'shows complete contempt for the general public'. Dr Calum MacKellar, director of research at the SCHB, added, 'This kind of agreement by women to donate their eggs for research will generally exploit the poorest members of our society. No rich person would even consider this kind of arrangement'.
Professor Alison Murdoch who leads the Newcastle team said, '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'. Peter Braude, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Kings College London, who has also been granted HFEA licences for embryonic stem cell research in the past commented, 'This is a difficult situation because there is a strong need for eggs for research. However, this license 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 shall wait to see what the public thinks of this issue'.
Discussing the planned public consultation 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'. It will be at least a year before the Newcastle scheme will begin as the team now needs to apply for funding.