HFEA consults on donating eggs for research

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has released a consultation document, Donating eggs for research: safeguarding donors, seeking comments on whether egg donation for research should take place and if so, what safeguards should be put into place to ensure the donors well-being. Specifically the consultation asks for views on the appropriateness of non-patient (altruistic) donation, egg sharing for research (as has been licensed), what safeguards should be in place to protect donors if these forms of donation are allowed and any other comments on donating eggs specifically for research purposes.

Historically, women have been able to donate their surplus eggs for the treatment of others as well as for research, such as into fertility treatment. Eggs can be harvested while a woman is undergoing various treatments, such as sterilisation and IVF treatment. Egg-sharing programmes allow women to donate surplus eggs to other women in exchange for a reduction in the cost of their IVF treatment. However, with the rise in embryo research, more focus has been placed on allowing women to donate their eggs specifically for research purposes. UK researchers currently use surplus eggs from other treatments for research, but contend that fresh eggs are necessary in order to facilitate embryo research (see BBC news story). The HFEA has already issued a licence to the North East England Stem Cell Institute allowing them to approach women to donate eggs to research, as opposed to another infertile woman, in exchange for reduced IVF costs (see related news story). However, while the HFEA favours allowing this kind of donation (see related news story), it has been a controversial decision, as it could be seen as a coercive tactic being used on vulnerable women.

Another issue is one of non-patient donation. Woman have been interested in donating their eggs simply for altruistic reasons, perhaps because they know someone who has a condition that might be helped through stem cell therapies. Unfortunately, the procedures and drugs used to stimulate ovulation could result in women suffering from ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome (OHSS). The HFEA notes in the consultation that mild OHSS is relatively common (between 1-10% of cases) while severe OHSS is rare (~1% of cases). However, severe OHSS can be fatal, raising the question of whether women should be allowed to risk potentially serious complications to donate to research that will not help them directly.

There are many safeguards currently in place to protect women donors, including informed consent procedures that ensure that the person taking the consent is not involved in the research project. In this way, a woman will not be pressured into donating by someone with a vested interest in the success of the research. Another possible safeguard suggested by the HFEA is not allowing women to donate eggs to a research project on which they are employed. This reflects the concern the international community had following allegations that South Korean research staff had been pressured into donating their eggs to support Prof Hwang Woo-Suks experiments (see previous news story). The HFEA welcomes comments on whether these and other safeguards would be sufficient to protect women donating for research purposes, or if the practice in general should be prohibited or limited in some way. The consultation closes 8 December 2006.