Is It Ethical to Pay Women to Donate Eggs for Medical Research?

By Eliza Strickland | July 13, 2009 4:11 pm

human oocyteTo obtain a steady supply of unfertilized human eggs for medical research, New York’s Empire State Stem Cell Board recently authorized paying women to donate their eggs. The decision has set off a new round of discussion about whether paying for eggs is ethical. The board agreed that women can receive up to $10,000 for donating eggs, a painful and sometimes risky process…. Proponents say compensating women for their eggs is necessary for research, and point out that women who give their eggs for fertility purposes are already paid. Others worry that the practice will commodify the human body and lead to the exploitation of women in financial need [The New York Times]. 

At the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research this week, British researcher Alison Murdoch described a less controversial “egg sharing” program that has met with success. Women struggling to conceive can obtain IVF at a discounted rate, in exchange for donating some of their eggs for research…. In 2008, Murdoch’s team had 191 enquiries from interested women and ended up obtaining 199 eggs from 32 couples. “We are getting donors and we are getting eggs,” says Murdoch. The team is using the eggs in experiments into “therapeutic cloning”, which could ultimately produce stem cells matched to individual patients [New Scientist].

“Therapeutic cloning” relies on a process called somatic cell nuclear transfer. In the process, the DNA from an adult cell, such as a skin cell, is inserted into a human egg that has had its DNA removed. The fertilized egg then begins to develop similarly to a regular embryo, and scientists can harvest stem cells several days later. The resulting cells are genetically matched to the adult tissue donor, and could therefore be used for cell transplants without the risk of immune rejection [Technology Review]. Stem cells can develop into any type of tissue in the body, and are thought to hold great potential for treating diseases.

Some researchers suggest that recent advances in reprogramming adult cells to behave like stem cells may eliminate the need for cloning, and thus for egg donation. But others disagree. “There are many questions you can only answer by studying human eggs,” said Dr. George Q. Daley, a stem cell researcher [The New York Times]. For example, researchers want to compare stem cells created through therapeutic cloning to those created by reprogramming adult cells to understand why the reprogrammed cells behave somewhat differently.

Related Content:
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80beats: Obama to Lift Bush’s Restrictions on Stem Cell Research Today
80beats: FDA Approves the First Clinical Trials Using Embryonic Stem Cells
80beats: Leftover Embryos at Fertility Clinics Pose Troubling Questions for Patients

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
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