Stem-Cell Field Counts on New Egg Donors

Tuesday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law a bill extending protections for women who donate their eggs for research. Several California universities have indicated their interest in creating stem-cell lines with cloned human embryos, and for that, they'll need egg donors. Today, the Institute of Medicine and the California agency that will distribute the $3 billion approved for stem-cell research in California are sponsoring a workshop on what is known about the risks of egg donation.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

In California today, a meeting about the potential risks for women who want to donate their eggs for stem cell research. On Tuesday, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a bill designed to protect women who donate their eggs. It would also prohibit women from selling their eggs to researchers.

Several California universities are planning to create stem cell lines from cloned human embryos and for that they'll need plenty of eggs and egg donors. Today's workshop is being held by the Institute of Medicine and the California agency that funds stem cell research.

NPR's Joe Palca is there in San Francisco and he joins us. Joe, what are the possible health risks to a woman who wants to donate her eggs?

JOE PALCA: Well, you know, normally a woman will produce a single egg in a month and if you're trying to donate eggs for research purposes, the idea is to try and get as many as you can. So they would give the woman drugs to stimulate her ovaries to produce more eggs that were ready to fertilize. So those drugs have some consequences and sometimes the act of stimulating the ovaries can cause medical problems subsequently.

Then there's the retrieval of the eggs, which involves pushing a needle through the back wall of the vagina and sucking out the eggs from the ovaries. And any surgery can have some complications. And there's also anesthetic, because this is not a pain free procedure and so it can require a general anesthetic in some cases. So, you know, taken together those are a combination of things that are not necessarily pleasant.

BLOCK: A lot of women, though, go through similar procedures if they're trying to have a child through in vitro fertilization. Are the risks different for women who want to donate their eggs for research?

PALCA: Well, they're not all that different, but it's the question of the risk versus the benefit. If you're an infertile woman and you're anxious to have a child and you go for in vitro fertilization, you might be willing to put up with discomfort and maybe some risk because you want a baby.

And if you're donating your eggs to another woman, if you're an egg donor who's donating for reproduction and you know that your egg is going to help an infertile couple have a baby, there's a psychological reward for that, and in some cases a financial one as well. And so there's a reason that you might put up with this risk.

But in the case of donors for research, the benefit is way down the line. I mean, maybe someday stem cells from cloned embryos will help cure diseases, but that's not going to happen anytime soon.

BLOCK: How does the bill that Governor Schwarzenegger signed this week address these problems that you're talking about?

PALCA: Well, it basically relies on one of the standards of all research, which is informed consent. And it requires the doctors and subsequently the researchers to be absolutely clear and up front with the woman donor what the potential risks of the procedure are.

But one of the things that's coming out in this meeting today is it's pretty clear nobody's too sure what the risks are, because this is not something that's been studied very much. And if you take it a step further, it's been studied in women who go for in vitro fertilization, but it certainly hasn't been studied very much in women who are donating their eggs for research.

And so that's a population that may behave differently. They may be healthier, for example, and so the risk may be lower, but nobody really knows and there's just not been a lot of study of it.

BLOCK: What about the part of the bill that says women can't be paid if they donate their eggs for research. They would get paid if they're donating eggs to infertile couples.

PALCA: Right. And that's an issue, because a lot of people say why not pay women for the time and discomfort and trouble and certainly car fare to the clinic, which in fact is allowed. But the feeling was - and it's now law in the state of California - that it was inappropriate to give women large sums of money to contribute their eggs for research, because we're not allowed to sell organs for research and so they were treating this like it's like the same thing. And we didn't want to coerce people into donating, because, you know, they'd feel they'd make money from it. That's wrong.

But at the same time, the flip side is that scientists are concerned - and probably with some reason - that women won't be lining up to go through this procedure and so the eggs may be hard to come by.

BLOCK: NPR's Joe Palca talking with us from San Francisco. Joe thanks very much.

PALCA: You're welcome.

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