Under the egg sharing scheme, the research team would contribute to the cost of a patient’s IVF treatment in return for the donation of some of her eggs. The material would be used in a field of stem cell research known as nuclear transfer, or therapeutic cloning.
The team, from the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI), anticipates the move will lead to an increase in the number of eggs for research, allowing faster progress to be made towards stem cell therapies for conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.
The NESCI team is the first in the UK to be offered permission to operate egg sharing for research purposes by the regulatory body the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA). The team’s local ethics committee has already granted permission.
However, it will be at least 12 months before the scheme is in operation as the research team now needs funding to make it work. It needed to have the regulatory agreement in place before applications could be made for financial backing.
The HFEA offer represents a variation of an existing licence awarded in 2004 to Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Newcastle and director of the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre at LIFE. This permitted researchers to use, with patient consent, ‘failed to fertilise’ eggs from patients having IVF treatment and women undergoing follicle reduction for fertility treatment.
One of these eggs was used to successfully create a human blastocyst after nuclear transfer, an early-stage cloned human embryo, now recognised as a world-first and reported in a scientific journal in 2005. However, this represented just a small step forward in a long journey towards developing stem cell therapies that could be used in patients.
In 2005 the team gained approval from the local ethics committee and the HFEA to ask IVF patients to donate two fresh eggs to research if they had more than 12 eggs collected for their treatment.
Researchers say, however, the number of eggs donated is too small to allow the work to progress rapidly, and existing practice provided only 66 eggs in seven months. Research suggests that nuclear transfer is only likely to be successful if eggs are ‘fresh’ - used immediately after they have been taken from the women.
Egg sharing has been in operation in fertility clinics for 10 years with HFEA approval. This involves women who are undergoing IVF treatment sharing their eggs with another woman. The recipient pays for most of the donor’s treatment. Thus the donor is able to have IVF treatment which she might otherwise not be able to afford.
In ‘egg sharing for research’, the woman will receive treatment at a reduced cost in return for donation of some eggs. In this case, the patients will be recruited from women undergoing fertility treatment at the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre at Life and the scientific work will be carried out by scientists at Newcastle and Durham Universities.
Professor Murdoch (pictured) said: “We are extremely pleased with the HFEA’s decision, which is a step forward for stem cell research and medicine generally.
“Volunteers have been essential to medical research for many years and this is just another way of engaging volunteers in a research project. Like all UK research, it will be strictly regulated at a local and national level by ethics committees and the principals of research governance.
"In Newcastle our fertility patients already take part in a thorough consultation before deciding whether to donate their eggs. Our experience is that these patients understand the benefits of our research, and the majority are very keen to participate.
"Of course, it is of paramount importance to ensure that all donors are not recruited to participate in this research against their best interest by coercion or excessive financial inducement. All patients involved in egg sharing need IVF treatment to help them have a baby. We are helping them to have treatment they may not otherwise be able to afford. There is no additional physical risk to the woman as a result of egg sharing“
She added: “We should point out that, at this stage, we are not offering great promises to patients who may benefit from stem cell therapies. There are many scientific difficulties to be overcome in this research before we will be able to translate stem cell science into new treatments. However, obtaining more eggs for research will help us to overcome these at a much faster rate than we are doing at the moment.”
The HFEA today announced it is to develop new guidance on whether it is appropriate for women to donate their eggs for use in scientific research with plans for a full consultation from September onwards. It has requested that the NESCI team provide regular information on its progress to feed in to the consultation process.
* The North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) draws together Durham and Newcastle Universities, the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust and other partners in a unique interdisciplinary collaboration to convert stem cell research and technologies into cost-effective, ethically-robust 21st century health solutions to ameliorate degenerative diseases, the effects of ageing and serious injury. The Institute has received substantial funding and other support from the regional development agency, One NorthEast.
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published on: 27th July 2006