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Women will be reimbursed about half the cost of their in vitro fertilisation in return for donating “surplus” eggs for stem cell research, in the first study funded by the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) that will pay participants.
The MRC announced last week that it is funding a research proposal from the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI), based in Newcastle, to find ways of improving the efficiency of therapeutic cloning. This technique is designed to create stem cells specific to a patient that might eventually be used to treat conditions in which new cells could be therapeutic—such as diabetes, heart disease, and Parkinson's disease.
Out of the funding of £470000 (€680000; $950000) for the research, the MRC will provide £150000 to reimburse part of the cost of treatment for women undergoing in vitro fertilisation at the Newcastle Fertility Centre and who donate some of the surplus eggs produced, for use in the research. This grant will provide £1500 towards the costs of the treatment, which is usually about £3000 for each egg donor. The money will be paid directly to the NHS trust and the women's treatment bills reduced accordingly.
This is the first time that the MRC has provided payment for people taking part in a research study. “While there are ethical issues in providing payment for treatment of people who are participating in research, and this is not normally MRC policy, in this case the women would be taking no additional risks to their health by providing surplus eggs for research,” the MRC said in a statement announcing its decision.
The recipient of the grant, Alison Murdoch, consultant gynaecologist with Newcastle Hospitals NHS Trust and professor of reproductive medicine at the University of Newcastle, explained that the payment scheme was needed to obtain sufficient eggs to make progress. Previously her group has found that about 30% of women asked to donate surplus eggs for stem cell research have done so.
“This provided 66 eggs over seven months, which meant that the research group would have an egg one week but nothing the next. We can't carry out research when the supply is so ad hoc. To get anywhere we needed a more steady supply.”
In recognition of the potential problems of paying the participants in research, the MRC is funding an independent social science study that will be carried out alongside the stem cell study to explore women's experiences and to inform future research involving egg donation and payment of the costs of in vitro fertilisation treatment.
Infertility Network UK, a charity for people affected by infertility, emphasised the need for patients to receive counselling on the implications of donating eggs before making any decisions. Clare Brown, chief executive, said, “We are concerned that in some cases patients are having to consider egg sharing either for treatment or, in this case, for research in order to access treatment because they cannot access NHS treatment.”
Professor Murdoch agreed that in vitro fertilisation should be funded by the NHS, but, because it is currently provided for only one third of women, she said that the scheme provided a way of making treatment more affordable for people who would otherwise have to pay the full cost.
Ms Brown was also concerned about informed consent: “Patients need to make an informed choice, and it is imperative that they receive thorough counselling to ensure they understand fully the implications of donating half their eggs. This is particularly important as not all patients will be successful with treatment.”
Professor Murdoch said that the team would be working to principles agreed by ethics committees and that informed consent would be obtained by a research nurse who will work separately from the stem cell programme. Women who agree to donate their eggs will sign a written agreement to donate half their eggs, but women who produce fewer than five eggs would not be expected to donate any and would not lose their right to payment.
See www.nesci.ac.uk for more information.