Of all the questions about California’s ambitious plans to publicly finance human cloning projects for medical research, one of the thorniest may be how scientists plan to gather the thousands of eggs they’ll need from women.
It’s an ethical dilemma that has made unlikely allies of Christian groups — who believe cloning immorally creates and destroys life in the name of science — and women’s rights activists who fear that poor women will be exploited by commercial interests willing to pay thousands of dollars for human eggs produced by fertility drugs.
The issue is not abstract. A small, nonprofit lab outside Boston has been quietly paying a handful of women for the last four years to take hormone injections to “superovulate” several eggs at once and donate them for research. The Bedford Stem Cell Research Foundation has paid about 20 women about $4,000 each plus expenses to take fertility hormones. It is the only U.S. organization known to be actively collecting eggs for research purposes.
Bedford has had to suspend its egg collection program four times since 2001 because it ran out of money. The foundation says each donor costs the lab about $25,000 because each woman undergoes 40 hours of counseling and medical checkups and gets paid child-care and traveling expenses, highlighting the daunting task facing California researchers who want to clone.
The California Institute for Regenerative Medicine, which was created when voters approved Proposition 71 in November, prohibits cloning to create babies but plans to fund human cloning projects designed to create stem cells.
To do that, California researchers will need eggs.
The problem is how to obtain the eggs, especially considering how inefficient cloning technology is. South Korean researchers in 2004 used 242 eggs from 16 donors to yield just one cloned embryo, from which they were the first to extract stem cells.
About 100,000 American women are injected annually with hormones to stimulate their ovaries to “superovulate” each year at fertility clinics in attempts to conceive babies. The process is arduous, and there’s a 1-in-50 chance a patient will over-respond to the hormones, causing complications.
Of course, researchers can avoid these problems if they go the transgenic route, creating embryos from blending human nuclei with the eggs of cows, pigs, mice, or rabbits.
Doctor Moreau…paging Doctor Moreau…