The UK's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has, for the first time, amended a licence for stem cell research to be carried out, which allows women to donate eggs without needing the donation to be linked to ongoing IVF or sterilisation procedures. The team, based at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, was granted a temporary licence last year allowing them to offer discounted IVF treatment to women in return for donating eggs to their research. The new licence extends the pool of potential recruits to allow any women to volunteer to undergo the egg donation procedure in order to further the group's work into therapeutic stem cell research. The decision is controversial as it has been taken during a public consultation process on the issue which ended in December. The results of the consultation are not expected to be announced until February.
The group, led by Professor Alison Murdoch, are hoping to perfect the technique of SCNT (somatic cell nuclear transfer), in order to progress research into patient-specific cell therapies. The goal of the research is to create stem cells using a patient's own nucleus transplanted into a donated egg. These stem cells could then be coaxed into tissue types that could help the patient to recover from injury or diseases such as Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, without risk of rejection as the cells would carry the patient's own genetic material. This type of nuclear transfer has not, so far, been successful in humans.
Dr Stephen Minger, a leading stem cell researcher based at King's College London, condemned the decision saying, 'We are concerned that the current state of the technology means hundreds of eggs from young women will be required to generate a single human embryonic stem cell line'. He went on to describe his surprise at the decision being made during the consultation process: 'Although I support this research, I am flabbergasted that the licence was given before the consultation process was completed. It seems very improper. What is the point in having a consultation?' Dr Minger is currently awaiting the result of an application for a licence to conduct similar research using animal eggs in order to perfect the technique before using human eggs. Collecting eggs is a painful procedure which is associated with some risks.
The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Genomics Network (EGN) were also reported to be concerned about the granting of the licence during the consultation process. Dr Alexandra Plows, EGN Research Associate commented, 'I am not surprised by the HFEA decision to grant the license. The HFEA has just run a public consultation on donating eggs for research and our expert meeting was fairly critical of the [then] consultation process, which even at the time gave the impression of being a fait accompli. Public confidence in the public engagement process, and ultimately the consultation's conclusions, is bound to be diminished'.
Professor Murdoch - who has not yet begun recruiting women as she is waiting to hear if her research will receive funding - said, 'I think it's probably very unlikely that we will get many women coming forward, because of the procedures that are involved and the potential risks that might be involved there. But I believe very firmly in women's choice, and if we give these women full info about what the research is about, and about the risks that they incur in participating in this research, I think we should take their decision as it stands'.
The HFEA released a statement which explained that the organisation has a statutory obligation to consider licence applications, and that Professor Murdoch's application was received before the consultation began. The statement continued, 'The centre has agreed to provide the HFEA with information on egg donation for research arising from setting up the research and this will be extremely helpful to the policy review. The centre is fully aware that if a new HFEA policy following the consultation does not allow altruistic egg donation then the licence committee would be able to reconsider their decision under the new circumstances'.