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Egg donors: science or fertility clinics?

If you donate your eggs to scientific research, you can’t receive any compensation. However, if you donate your eggs to fertility clinics, you can get thousands of dollars. This is according to laws of certain states in the US based on guidelines set by US National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The non-compensation guideline is aimed to protect poor women from being exploited by researchers.

However, this law is restricting the progress of stem cell research, complain American researchers and they are asking that the law be changed.

Researchers need human egg cells in therapeutic cloning, one of most promising field of stem cell medical research. In therapeutic cloning, the nucleus (the part containing most of the DNA) of an egg cell is removed. The nucleus of an adult human cell is then inserted into the empty “egg shell” and from this new cell, stem cells can be produced. Scientists use this technique to study diseases by producing “diseased stem cells.”

However, in recent years, less and less women donate their eggs to science and go for the more profitable option – fertility clinics. You’d see advertisements everywhere that would go like this: “Pay your way through college by becoming an egg donor.” or “Need money? We will pay for your eggs.”

Being an egg donor is not easy. The procedure takes time (screening, consultation, clinic visits) and it can be painful (hormonal injection, and surgical removal of egg cells). It is no wonder that not many women are willing to do it for free.

The law, however, varies from state to state. Although some states are less stringent, in Massachusetts and California which are home to leading US stem-cell research institutes, compensation is out of the question. Researchers at Harvard University’s Stem Cell Institute spent US$100,000 on advertising campaigns for two years before they could get a single egg donor, according to Nature News. With such an amount, a fertility clinic can secure several donors.

This law is not unique to the US. In European countries, non-compensation is also the rule rather than the exception. In the UK, some universities have found some sort of middle ground. Couples in need of fertility treatments can have discounted prices in university clinics if they “share” some of their eggs to science during the fertility treatment procedure.


Nature News 11 June 2008 | Nature 453, 828-829 (2008)

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