SEVEN North-East women who donated eggs as part of a world-first medical research programme are expecting babies.

The women donated eggs in return for cut-price in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment at the Newcastle Fertility Centre.

The eggs are being used by the North-East England Stem Cell Institute (Nesci) - a collaboration between Durham and Newcastle universities - for pioneering research into stem cell therapies.

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The egg sharing programme has been condemned by groups opposed to stem cell research.

However, it has meant that North-East scientists have access to a much larger pool of donated human eggs.

This has given them an international advantage in the race to develop treatments for conditions such as diabetes, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease.

Professor Alison Murdoch, who is leading the project at Nesci, said: "We are delighted that this scheme has enabled so many couples to have a family from IVF treatment.

"Patients are telling us they wouldn't have been having IVF if it wasn't for the research. We find that couples coming forward are really considering what it means and whether it is the right option for them.

"Their choice to take part in the egg-sharing scheme means that important research is able to progress and we hope these successes will encourage other people to come forward."

Under the scheme, women pay only half the £3,000 it costs for IVF treatment.

In return, half their eggs are used for research.

A hundred women came forward after the scheme was launched in September last year.

After testing and counselling, 20 were found to be suitable.

Of those, 12, including three from County Durham, decided to take part in the scheme.

Seven couples - one from Bishop Auckland and six from Newcastle - are expecting babies in the autumn.

One couple are expecting twins.

In 2006, Nesci became the first organisation in the UK to be granted permission to recruit human egg donors by the Human Fertility and Embryology Authority (HFEA).

The move came after the North-East team succeeded in cloning Britain's first human embryos.

The scientists, based at the NHS-funded fertility centre at the Centre for Life in Newcastle, removed the genetic material from a human egg cell and replaced it with the genetic material of a patient using a technique called nuclear transfer.

The cell was made to divide into stem cells, which have the potential to develop into nearly every type of human cell and could turn out to be the source of revolutionary new treatments.

Funding for the egg-sharing for research programme was secured last year from the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Prof Murdoch believes the donor scheme has cemented the region's position at the international forefront of stem cell research.

She said: "Nobody has done nuclear transfer and successfully made stem cell lines yet because of the difficulties of getting hold of human eggs.

"This scheme means the patient gains by receiving treatment at a discounted price and the programme gains by receiving vital eggs for this research."

However, Dr David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, said: "I would like to know the effects on the overall pregnancy rates among these women who donated their eggs.

"Theoretically, one would think it would reduce the pregnancy rate.

"I think it's wrong to give women a lower chance of success in return for financial incentives."

Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, also criticised the scheme.

She said: "Three cycles of IVF has been recommended by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) guidelines and that is what women should be asking for.

"They should not be enticed into an agreement which is so clearly a trade in human tissue."

The egg sharing for research project is continuing for another year.

Anyone wanting more information on the scheme should call 0191-282-5000 or visit www.nesci.ac.uk

CASE STUDY

A COUPLE say the pioneering egg sharing scheme has meant they can finally look forward to a family of their own.

Debbie and James, whose names have been changed to protect their identity, had been trying for a baby for years.

When nothing happened their GP referred them to the Newcastle Fertility Clinic.

The couple saved up and even borrowed from their families to pay the £3,000 for a single course of IVF at Newcastle Fertility Centre at Life.

James said: ""We were devastated when it didn't work even though we had been prepared by staff at the clinic.

"We had already pushed ourselves financially and we knew we would have to wait and save before we could try again."

It was then that James' mum saw a news story about the egg sharing scheme.

James said: "Even with this option we knew it would still mean re-mortgaging our home, but the egg sharing scheme offered us a chance because the treatment was half price.

"In the end we felt this was the right way forward for us and were told we were suitable candidates for the scheme."

This second attempt at IVF was a success.

The couple are now expecting twins in the autumn.

Debbie said: "We're both so excited.

"It's not been easy but now we can finally look forward to a family of our own."

James added: "There has been cancer in both of our families and the fact that this research could help people like us was a big part in helping us make our decision.

"The care we received has been excellent and now we just can't wait for the twins to arrive."