The Human Fertilisation and Embryology and Authority (HFEA), which regulates fertility treatment and embryo research in the UK, is considering allowing altruistic egg donation for therapeutic cloning research. According to a report in the Times newspaper, the authority may soon approve new rules that will allow women to donate eggs for research aimed at obtaining stem cell from cloned human embryos. However, according to a statement on the HFEA's website, it is first awaiting more information on protection and finance issues before it agrees upon a new policy on gamete donors for research.
The issues surrounding egg donation for embryonic stem cell (ES cell) research have been in the news recently, following the revelation that South Korean scientist Woo Suk Hwang and his team used unethical procedures to obtain eggs for their cloning research - work that has since been shown to be faked. Scientists around the world, including teams in the UK and US, are still hoping to show that it is possible to obtain ES cell-lines from cloned human embryos. However, there is a shortage of eggs for such research, which in the UK can currently only be obtained from women undergoing fertility treatment.
The HFEA has received requests from scientists based in Edinburgh and Newcastle to allow them to ask women to donate eggs solely for stem cell research - so-called 'altruistic' egg donation. They feel it is the best way to allow such work to continue, especially since it would potentially permit scientists to use eggs from younger, fertile donors. But opponents of such a move say that the risks associated with egg donation mean it is unethical to ask women to undergo the procedure unless they are already undergoing fertility treatment.
The Times reported that the HFEA's ethics and law committee has recommended allowing altruistic egg donation, in a document published ahead of an open meeting held on 14 February. The committee said that permitting women to donate their eggs could benefit research, and would enable the donor to feel they had made a positive contribution. However, it also recommended that women should only be allowed to donate if they had completed their families - in case their fertility was affected in any way. It also proposed barring scientists from donating eggs for their own research projects, although it said their friends and family members should be permitted to do so, after receiving counselling to ensure they were acting voluntarily.
Josephine Quintavalle, of the pro-life pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE), told the newspaper that it was 'extraordinary' to 'find the HFEA endorsing donation at a time when scientists are at last acknowledging the significant risks associated with the process'. However, ethicist Ainsley Newson, of the University of Bristol, commented that 'so long as women are made fully aware of [the proposed new rules] and are not put under duress, they should have every opportunity to participate'.
The HFEA says that it has now asked for more information on the issue, which it will use to put together a discussion document ahead of its next public meeting, to be held in May. Dame Suzi Leather, Chair of the HFEA, said: 'We are committed to maintaining a broad consensus on embryo research and it is important that we strike a balance between providing safeguards for patients and the interests of scientists'.