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Stem-Cell Scientists Compete for Human Eggs


Harvard University scientists plan to go forward soon with a controversial research program. They hope to make embryonic stem cells from cloned human embryos. That's what Korean scientists said they'd already done, but their research turned out to be fraudulent.

The Harvard researchers believe stem cells made this way, will be extremely useful in understanding and treating deadly diseases. But, to make cloned human embryos, you need a supply of human eggs--lots of human eggs. And, as NPR's Joe Palca reports, getting women to donate their eggs for research, may prove difficult.

JOE PALCA reporting:

Just how difficult, is hard to say. There hasn't been a huge research demand for human eggs to date. But, the promise of embryonic stem cells may change that. Asking women to donate their eggs is nothing new in this country.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Speaker: You reach a point in your life when you want to give of yourself. If you're a woman in good health, around the age of 30, you can give of yourself in a way that changes your life and creates another. You can become an egg donor through IVF Florida...

PALCA: Fertility clinics are constantly looking for donors and they can offer powerful incentives.

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Unidentified Speaker: ...and because egg donation at IVF Florida isn't only rewarding emotionally. Compensation is $6,250 for a first-time donor.

PALCA: Amber Vasquez(ph) of Palm Beach County, Florida is, in many ways, a typical donor.

Ms. AMBER VASQUEZ (Egg Donor, Palm Beach County Florida): I'm 26. I'll be 27 in August. I have three boys. Casey(ph), my oldest, is nine. Nicolas(ph) is seven and Sebastian(ph) is three.

PALCA: To become a donor, Vasquez says she had to fill out a mountain of health forms, go for physical and psychological screening, and make multiple trips to the clinic. Then she had to take powerful drugs to stimulate her ovaries so they'd produce a dozen or more eggs. The drugs have to be injected, and they mess with your hormones in a way that puts some women on an emotional roller coaster, although Amber Vasquez says she didn't experience that side effect.

Ms. VASQUEZ: No, not really.

PALCA: Would your husband say the same thing?

Ms. VASQUEZ: (Laughs) He might, he might not agree. Maybe I was more cranky than usual, but, you know, anybody's cranky when they're getting three shots a day, so...

PALCA: And, finally, doctors have to retrieve the eggs surgically. Not a particularly dangerous or painful procedure, but surgery all the same. Amber Vasquez says she's willing to put up with the hassle and discomfort because she knows the pain infertility can cause.

Ms. VASQUEZ: I know that there are people that would just do anything to have a baby, and if that's something that I can help with, then I'm more than willing to do that.

PALCA: But, women who donate their eggs for research won't get that kind of immediate emotional reward. And then there's the question of money. Women who donate for fertility treatments get a financial reward as well. At least, for now, that won't be the case for eggs donated for research.

Most of the guidelines that have been drawn up for stem cell research, forbid paying women for donating their eggs. The main objection seems to be that offering money might induce a woman to do something against her better judgment. There's also a concern that the lure of big money would exploit poorer women. But, without money, getting eggs may be a problem.

Ms. KELLY RUGOLA (Donor Recruitment Specialist; Shady Grove Fertility Clinic): I've been recruiting now--I've been working on the donor program for seven years, and I can honestly tell you, in the seven years, no one has ever declined a check.

PALCA: Kelly Rugola works for Shady Grove Fertility Clinic in Maryland. Her job is to find women willing to become egg donors. She talks to hundreds of women a year about egg donation. I asked her whether she thought women could be persuaded to donate for free.

Ms. RUGOLA: My own personal opinion is, I think it's going to be very hard.

PALCA: And it's not just the money. Rugola says most egg donors can empathize with infertile women.

Ms. RUGOLA: They feel good about giving someone a chance to have a baby. And I'm sure that the research is good for the long run, but to just donate for research, I think, would make them not as comfortable as doing it to help someone directly.

PALCA: But that may not be as big a hurdle as Rugola predicts. Scientists aren't the only ones persuaded that stem cells from cloned embryos may be useful in treating disease. Take Amber Vasquez, for example.

Ms. VASQUEZ: My father has diabetes. His mother has diabetes. One day, I may have diabetes, or my children, and if you were to use stem cells to find a cure for diabetes, well, that would, now, could possibly effect me personally also.

PALCA: Vasquez says if scientists want her eggs, she'll donate them, and never mind the check. That attitude might seem like good news for scientists seeking eggs, and in one sense, it clearly is. But, Alison Murdoch sees it a bit differently. Murdoch is at the University of Newcastle in England. She's been working for the last few years to make stem cells from cloned embryos--so far, without success. She says she hears all the time from women who want to donate their eggs because they have a sick family member they hope can be treated with stem cells, and that worries Murdoch.

Professor ALISON MURDOCH (Professor of Reproductive Medicine, Head of Department of Reproductive Medicine, BioScience Centre, University of Newcastle upon Tyne, England): Because they are then being, not coerced to do something against their better interests, they are genuinely wanting to help. But they have to be absolutely sure that they understand the risks that they take. (Unintelligible) medication for a month or more, having a minor operation--which involves putting a needle inside them--carries risks.

PALCA: Murdoch has been trying to come up with ways to get eggs without asking women to donate exclusively for research. In addition to her research hat, Murdoch also runs a fertility clinic. Women are given the drugs to produce additional eggs when they go in for in vitro fertilization to have a child. And Murdoch says her experience shows that women, who can produce 12 healthy eggs, are just as likely to have a baby, as women who produce more.

Prof. MURDOCH: So, we asked them, if we've collected 12 eggs, can we have number 13 and 14 for the research. Now, a lot of women obviously said, well, that might have been my baby, so no, we don't want to participate.

PALCA: But Murdoch says, some do agree, and her team has conducted experiments with eggs collected that way. Even in the best case, human eggs for research will be fairly scarce. That's prompted neuroscientist Christopher Shaw of the Institute of Psychiatry in London to take an entirely different approach to making cloned embryos: don't use human eggs at all. Remember, to make a cloned embryo, you take the DNA from an adult human cell and put it into an egg from which most of the DNA has been removed. Shaw and his colleagues say it may be possible to use rabbit eggs instead of human eggs to make the cloned embryos.

Professor CHRISTOPHER SHAW (Professor of Neurology and Neurogenetics, King's College London, Institute of Psychiatry, England): So, essentially, what you're trying to do is develop a little embryo that's got most of the human genes in it, and a little bit of rabbit. Remember, we're not actually making a creature; we're just taking the stem cells out at about a 200-cell stage, which is smaller than the head of pin.

PALCA: Even with that caveat, Shaw knows some people will find mixing species like this troubling. And, there are scientific drawbacks to making stem cells this way as well.

Prof. SHAW: These cells will still be a little bit rabbit, and they could never be used for therapy, but they can be used to study disease processes and screen for compounds that might be effective.

PALCA: That may be enough for some researchers, but others would like to use cloned stem cells for therapy, and for now, that means finding human egg donors. Researchers will have to hope they can find more women like Amber Vasquez.

Ms. VASQUEZ: I've always been all for any kind of research that could help cure diseases, and I find that I'd pretty much be willing to do anything that didn't jeopardize, you know, my health in a real major way.

PALCA: Stem cell researchers have a lot of hard work ahead to justify the faith Amber Vasquez has in them.

Joe Palca, NPR News.

YDSTIE: Joe Palca looks at the facts and fiction behind stem cell science at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joe Palca is a science correspondent for NPR. Since joining NPR in 1992, Palca has covered a range of science topics — everything from biomedical research to astronomy. He is currently focused on the eponymous series, "Joe's Big Idea." Stories in the series explore the minds and motivations of scientists and inventors. Palca is also the founder of NPR Scicommers – A science communication collective.