You can't get something for nothing, especially when it comes to acquiring women's eggs for medical research. But it is becoming clear that there are effective alternatives to cash payments, which are banned in several countries.
At the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Barcelona, Spain, this week, Alison Murdoch of the International Centre for Life in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK, describes a successful "egg sharing" scheme. Women struggling to conceive can obtain IVF at a discounted rate, in exchange for donating some of their eggs for research.
Cash payments to egg donors are banned in the UK. But Murdoch's approach was approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority and has worked like a charm. 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.
Murdoch's success contrasts with the slim pickings obtained by researchers who have tried to persuade women to donate their eggs without payment. Most US ethics bodies have discouraged the practice of paying for research eggs. When Kevin Eggan and Doug Melton at Harvard University spent some $100,000 on advertising, they persuaded just one woman in two years to donate her eggs for free.
Since egg donors are so hard to come by, last month New York became the first US state to sanction cash payments to women giving eggs for research. Murdoch hopes egg sharing will become a viable - and less controversial - alternative.
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