The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has launched a public consultation on the donation of eggs for scientific research purposes. The consultation was announced in May after discussions at an HFEA public meeting failed to reach a conclusion on the issue. It will run until 8 December and it is expected that the HFEA will make public its decision by February 2007. Currently in the UK, women can donate eggs for fertility treatments but are not able to donate them for research unless they are already undergoing a fertility treatment or sterilisation procedure. The consultation asks if this should change, to enable women to donate eggs for research at any time, while pointing out that egg donation carries various risks for women, including medical risks of conditions such as ovarian hyper-stimulation syndrome, as well as a potential risk of coercion.
Research scientists can use eggs donated for research by fertility patients who have finished their own treatment - but these are few and far between. They can also use eggs that failed to fertilise during the IVF process, but scientists argue that the eggs they use should be of better quality. Researchers believe that using eggs in medical research could help scientists better understand infertility and miscarriage, as well as gain better insight into some genetic conditions.
The HFEA consultation asks the public and professionals whether or not IVF patients and women generally should be allowed to donate their eggs specifically for research. It seeks to find out whether women thinking about donation could be vulnerable or exploited and, if so, what potential safeguards could be put in place to prevent exploitation. 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. If that is not the case then we must act to protect their interests'. She added that 'more detailed and specific debate is now needed to help make a decision on donating eggs for research'.
Dr Tony Calland, chair of the British Medical Association (BMA) ethics committee, welcomed the consultation, saying that the BMA 'is pleased that the HFEA is seeking the public and profession's views before any new guidance comes into force', saying that the egg donation issue is 'a complex one'. He added that the BMA had concluded that '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'.
But Dr Stephen Minger, director of the Stem Cell Biology Laboratory at Kings College London, said in an interview that he believes it to be 'premature' to encourage women to undergo the invasive procedure involved in egg donation for scientific research. Although he supports the use of fresh, good quality eggs in fertility research, he said that donating eggs for any research involving cloning would be 'inefficient' as the vast majority of eggs used would never produce results. 'The efficiency of the procedure now is really in debate and it may be as little as one in 500', he said, adding 'until we've improved this procedure and get it to an efficient level say of ten per cent, we're going to need literally hundreds of eggs and that means a very large number of egg donors'. He went on to say that he does not 'feel it's acceptable at the current time to encourage women who undergo a still somewhat risky procedure, it's very invasive, to donate eggs for a procedure that at the current time is just not efficient enough to make this worthwhile'.
Clare Brown, chief executive of patient group Infertility Network UK, said that 'without research, treatments for infertility, which have helped millions of couples worldwide to have a child where without it they might never have achieved that dream before, will never improve'. But, she added: 'We believe it is vital that all aspects of any research, especially when it involves donated eggs, should be carefully thought through and discussed'.