A UK fertility centre has launched a scheme to provide women with cut-price IVF treatment in return for donating some of their eggs to research. The 'egg-sharing' initiative is being offered by the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre and the North-East England Stem Cell Institute (Nesci) and will contribute £1500 - around half the cost of one cycle of IVF treatment - to women who give half their eggs to research.
The scheme was approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) in July 2006 and received public support following a consultation in January 2007. It is intended to make the benefits of IVF more accessible to infertile women whilst addressing the shortage of high quality eggs for human stem cell research. Recruiting started in September 2007 and targets women in the North-East of England aged 21 to 35. So far, 15 women have been found suitable for the scheme out of 100 who came forward. Six of these are due to start their fertility treatment this month. Volunteers are selected after testing and extensive counselling.
Professor Alison Murdoch, who is leading the project, said that 'like all UK research, it will be strictly regulated at a local and national level by ethics committees and the principles of research governance. We expect this to open the door to some infertile women who may now find it less difficult to meet the cost of IVF'. She emphasised that 'the most important thing is the patient's fertility treatment' - if less than six eggs are collected, the volunteer will be allowed to keep them all in order to maximise their chance of pregnancy. All the women approved for the scheme have had previous IVF treatment, enabling the researchers to select women likely to produce high numbers of good quality eggs.
The donated eggs will be used in SCNT experiments to derive embryonic stem cell lines from patients with incurable diseases such as Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. This strategy, often referred to as 'therapeutic cloning', is used to study the development of these diseases and to test new drugs. A previous scheme allowing researchers to ask for unpaid donations of 'left-over' eggs resulted in insufficient numbers of eggs being contributed to the project.
The new scheme, paid for by the government-funded Medical Research Council, is the first time scientists in the UK have been permitted to offer monetary compensation in return for egg donations for research purposes. This has sparked much dissent amongst pro-life lobbies. Dr Callum MacKellar, director of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics voiced concern that 'this is an exploitation of poor couples. Rich people will not have to be presented with such a choice because they are able to pay for IVF treatment'.