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Success of the great fertility egg sale
FIFTEEN women from the region are to donate eggs for stem cell research in exchange for half-price fertility treatment as part of a pioneering scheme.
It is hoped that the controversial idea will help keep researchers from the North-East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI) ahead of their international rivals in the race to develop stem cell treatments for a host of diseases.
The Newcastle University team are still the only scientists in the world to have successfully cloned a human embryo by using a revolutionary technique called nuclear transfer.
This involves "hollowing out"
the centre of a donated human egg and injecting the DNA taken from another person into the egg.
By stimulating the egg in a laboratory, scientists hope to understand how cells can be "reprogrammed"
to produce different kinds of human tissue.
If scientists can unlock this secret, it could lead to a revolutionary approach to treating illnesses, injuries and burns by helping individual patients regenerate damaged tissue.
It was the pressing need to obtain regular supplies of unfertilised human eggs to carry on research into potential cures for conditions such as Parkinson's disease and diabetes that led to the Newcastle team applying for permission to set up the discounted IVF scheme.
Six of the women will begin in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment at the Newcastle Fertility Centre this month.
As part of a unique egg-sharing scheme approved by the Medical Research Council four months ago, the women have agreed to give half of any eggs produced during IVF treatment to stem cell scientists.
They will be charged about £1,500 - about half the usual fee for IVF.
When the scheme was announced in September, the Newcastle team were inundated with phone calls from women in the North-East and North Yorkshire willing to take part.
A "delighted" Professor Alison Murdoch, who is leading the project at NESCI, said: "We had 100 calls in ten days. It was overwhelming."
All of the potential donors were asked to fill in a detailed questionnaire and then counselled by a nurse at the Centre for Life, in Newcastle.
"We are not keen to treat people who have not had IVF before,"
said Prof Murdoch.
"Ideally, we only want people who have had IVF in the past and who have grown an adequate number of eggs."
This is because the research team do not wish to reduce the chances of women undergoing IVF treatment having a healthy baby.
She added: "We give the women lots of information, in writing and orally. These are intelligent, young, fit and healthy women we are seeing.
"They badly want to have a baby and they are capable of making their decisions."
The team made headlines around the world three years ago when they became the first to clone human embryos.
Since that development, some stem cell scientists elsewhere in the world have switched their attention from embryonic stem cells to a technique called induced pluripotency.
This involves working with skin cells taken from patients with the aim of developing a way of "training" the cells to produce different kinds of human tissue.
But Prof Murdoch is sceptical of this approach.
She said: "I am not totally convinced that this is a significant step forward. It is certainly promising enough that people need to be working on it.
"Nature's way to reprogramme a cell is to put it in an egg, and I think we should try to understand that process and try to replicate it."
Some religious groups remain opposed to embryonic stem cell research.
Father Derek Turnham, from the Roman Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough, said his church regarded human life as sacred and opposed work with embryos.
"You wouldn't allow your own three-year-old daughter to be taken to a laboratory for research, so the principle of research being done on a living embryo is the same," he said.
Josephine Quintaville, a longterm critic of embryonic stem cell research and the founder of a group called Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said: "I feel extremely sorry for the women who have been inveigled into this deal.
"The researchers would not have had the opportunity to get their hands on these eggs if the NHS delivered the three free cycles of IVF they are supposed to have."
Ms Quintaville said there was the danger of creating a situation where the researchers wanted as many eggs as possible - while medical opinion was moving towards fertility treatment that produced fewer but higher quality eggs for IVF.
* Anyone interested in finding out more about egg sharing can call 0191-282-5000, or download more information and a form at www.nesci.ac.uk