NORTH-EAST women will be offered half-price fertility treatment if they donate eggs for stem cell research - the first scheme of its kind in the world.

The Medical Research Council (MRC) has agreed to fund the Newcastle-based project.

It will mean more women in the region will get access to in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment - and at a reduced price.

The scheme should also help to keep researchers from the North- East England Stem Cell Institute ahead of their international rivals in the race to develop stem cell treatment for several diseases.

Recently, a team headed by Dr Lyle Armstrong, from Newcastle University, was given permission to use cows' eggs for research into stem cell treatments.

The scheme will mean that the Newcastle stem cell scientists will have a plentiful supply of human eggs to work with.

Scientists at the Centre for Life said that human eggs donated as part of the MRC-funded scheme are "spare" and unfertilised eggs that would otherwise be thrown away.

Any residual DNA material would be removed from the donated egg before attempts are made - through an advanced procedure known as nuclear reprogramming - to replace the nucleus of the egg with donated cells from a patient.

The aim is to try to encourage the cell to divide, producing a line of stem cells that could be made to become different types of tissue.

Scientists hope to produce replacement tissue that could be implanted back into the patient without the problem of rejection.

Women who sign up will pay about £1,500 for IVF treatment at the Newcastle Fertility Centre at the Centre for Life. Currently, women face a bill of £3,000.

The MRC has agreed to settle half of the bill if the women agree to donate half of the eggs produced by fertility treatment.

Many women develop about 20 eggs.

However, only one or two are normally put back into the womb after fertilisation.

Currently, the Newcastle Fertility Centre treats about 900 women a year.

That figure is likely to increase because of MRC funding.

Professor Alison Murdoch, head of department at the Newcastle Fertility Centre, said: "We expect this to open the door to some infertile women who may now find it less difficult to meet the cost of IVF."

Women interested in becoming a donor are asked to visit www. nesci.