BioWorld International Correspondent

LONDON - The UK is poised to further extend the legal framework around therapeutic human cloning by allowing altruistic donations of eggs for research.

At present, only eggs extracted during in vitro fertilization treatments can be used in attempts to generate cloned embryos for use in stem cell research. Although one group at Newcastle University has succeeded in producing a cloned blastocyst from such an egg, no embryonic stem cell lines were generated from it, and the low number of eggs and their poor quality is thought to be hampering the research.

The regulatory agency, the Human Fertilization and Embryology Authority, held a public meeting last week to discuss its recommendation that guidelines should be changed to allow women to make altruistic donations.

With an eye on the South Korean cloning scandal in which colleagues were allegedly coerced into donating, women researchers would not be able to donate eggs to the group they work with. However, the HFEA suggested that friends and family of scientists could make donations after counseling to ensure donation was voluntary.

Because donation can impair future fertility, only women who have completed their families would be allowed to donate.

The recommendations renewed the controversy over therapeutic cloning, most notably because of the risks associated with donation, and in particular the possibility of ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. In June 2005, the HFEA gave Alison Murdoch’s group at Newcastle permission to approach women having IVF treatment to ask them to donate eggs specifically for research (as opposed to waiting to use surplus eggs after treatment). This has increased the supply, but not enough, and Murdoch subsequently sought approval for altruistic donations.

After the meeting last week, the HFEA deferred a final decision asking for more information on the protection of donors and how donation procedures will be financed. "We are committed to maintaining a broad consensus on embryo research," said Suzi Leather, chair of the HFEA. "It is important that we strike a balance between providing safeguards for patients and the interests of scientists."