Women will be paid to donate their eggs for scientific research in a landmark decision that will prompt a fierce backlash from// leading figures in the medical world.
The Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA), the government regulator of this highly sensitive area, is expected to approve the policy when it meets on Wednesday. At present, clinics are not allowed to accept eggs donated for scientific research unless they are a byproduct of either IVF treatment or sterilisation. Campaigners for change say that this has led to a chronic shortage of eggs for scientific use.
The HFEA's influential Ethics and Law Committee has already privately recommended the controversial switch, and the authority is expected to follow this recommendation. The committee based its opinion on a 64-page report, seen by The Observer, summarising the arguments. 'The potential scientific gains outweigh the objections,' said one source closely involved in the decision.
The authority will argue that allowing women to donate eggs more generally for scientific use may help stem cell researchers to find cures for heart problems, infertility, diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's.
Women who go through the medical procedure to harvest the eggs from their ovaries, which doctors describe as 'invasive' and possibly dangerous, will be paid ￡250 plus travel expenses, the existing maximum compensation for any egg or sperm donor. Anyone agreeing to donate will have to show that they are acting for altruistic reasons, for example because they have a close relative suffering with one of the conditions scientists are trying to develop new treatments for with the aid of human eggs.
But scientists from the University of Padua in Italy have warned that women who donate their eggs for research could be at risk from life-threatening side effects induced by the powerful drugs administered to them. The drugs help to increase the number of eggs prod
uced and were found by the scientists to cause paralysis and could lead to limb amputation and even death.
There were also warnings last night that poor women could be tempted or coerced into taking part for the money. 'The HFEA could be unwittingly opening the door to barter or sale of eggs, including women in Britain as well as abroad, even though it is saying that women doing this would do so for purely altruistic reasons,' said Donna Dickenson, emeritus professor of medical ethics and humanities at the University of London and one of Britain's leading experts on the issue.
'The sum of ￡250 would still be enough of an inducement for women from eastern Europe, for example, to come to Britain to sell their eggs. That's clearly turning eggs into an object of trade and that's disturbing. Once the principle of egg donation for research is established, it will become harder to prohibit paid egg donation.'
Some leading scientists have welcomed the HFEA's expected decision. Professor Peter Braude, head of the department of women's health at King's College London, said the medical dangers involved in the process of collecting the eggs should not deter women from offering to help medical science make potentially significant breakthroughs. There is a low but well-recognised risk of developing ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, which can occur during the extraction of eggs and can damage a woman's fertility and even cause death.
'Women are intelligent enough to make decisions for themselves about whether they want to donate eggs for research,' said Braude. 'Why should they be prevented from doing this? They shouldn't be, as long as they are told about the risks. Women have been donating eggs for more than 20 years, usually those undergoing sterilisation, so the principle isn't new. This is different because it's volunteering.'
The HFEA, chaired by Shirley Harrison, is set to approve the policy despite a host of lead
ing scientists voicing a range of concerns during the consultation process.
Some argued that the putative benefits of stem cell research had been exaggerated, while others highlighted the medical dangers to women who undergo the painful and invasive three-stage process to remove the eggs.
But one leading fertility doctor, who supports the move and did not want to be named, said there was no reason not to go ahead on grounds of medical risk because some women already took part in clinical drug trials for which they received money. Donations for research could lead to major breakthroughs in the treatment of infertility, he said.
At present, a woman can donate her eggs, either to help another woman while both of them are undergoing IVF treatment in return for a discount on the cost of her own fertility programme, or as an altruistic gesture to a close relative or friend. Any discount could be worth several thousand pounds.
Role of stem cells
Scientists need supplies of human eggs for stem cell research. Stem cells are found in high numbers in embryos and are used by the body to create brain, skin, bone and other cells. To create stem cells, an egg is taken from a woman and its nucleus removed. Then a cell is taken from a patient, its DNA scooped out and placed in the nucleus-free egg. The resulting embryo is allowed to grow for up to 14 days. Then its stem cells are removed and used in research. Crucially, these stem cells have the same genetic make-up as the patient so will not trigger immune responses from them.
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