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Better Late than Never

Scientists Discuss Risks of Egg Procurement
Genetic Crossroads
October 20th, 2006

For the first time, stem cell scientists have convened a meeting to discuss what is and is not known about risks to women who undergo egg extraction. The September 28 event, "Assessing the Medical Risks of Human Oocyte Donation for Stem Cell Research," was sponsored by the California stem cell research program and organized by the Institute of Medicine.

The presentations used data from the assisted reproduction field to inform stem cell researchers who plan to perform research cloning. Taken together, they made clear that further study is needed to assess the long-term health impacts of egg retrieval, and that managing short-term risks depends on careful monitoring of women while they are taking the hormonal drugs that the procedure entails.

There was general agreement that the most troubling short-term health risk of egg retrieval, ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome, is better understood than the long-term effects. These are less well defined due both to the difficulty of conducting such studies, and to the fact that egg retrieval has been performed on a wide scale for only twenty years. For example, existing data cannot rule out a relationship between the procedure and several types of cancer, especially those that would be showing up only after this lapse of time.

The risk picture is further complicated by the differences between providing eggs for reproduction and doing so for research. Women in these two settings are likely to have different characteristics, including age and medical history.

There are also significant differences on the benefit side that affect evaluation of "risk tolerance." Among women who undergo egg retrieval for fertility purposes, the vast majority do so in order to have their own baby—a situation that offers a very different kind of benefit than providing eggs for another woman, which in turn differs from providing eggs for research.

The data suggest that negative outcomes, particularly short-term effects, are related both to characteristics of the women and to the care with which medical personnel monitor women during the drug regimen. Adverse effects should be greatly reduced if at-risk women are prohibited from providing eggs, and if egg providers are closely monitored. Whether or not these practices are followed will depend on the development and implementation of effective oversight.

Watch a video webcast of the entire event.


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