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Letter to the New York stem cell research program ethics board

by Jesse Reynolds and Susan Fogel
January 21st, 2009

Dear Members of the NYSTEM Ethics Board:

We are supporters of embryonic stem cell research who wish to express our deep concerns about your upcoming consideration of permitting payments to women to provide eggs for stem cell research. Multiple egg extraction poses risks to women's health without a clear and demonstrable scientific rationale, and allowing payments for eggs is contrary to the guidelines set by the National Academies of Science.

The extraction of eggs poses nontrivial health risks for the women. The drug most often used to shut down the ovaries, Lupron, can cause side effects, including severe joint pain, difficulty breathing, chest pain, depression, amnesia, hypertension, and asthma. The drugs used to hyperstimulate the ovaries can lead to Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome, which in the most severe cases can lead to hospitalization and, rarely, death. The Institute of Medicine report, Assessing the Medical Risks of Human Oocyte Donation for Stem Cell Research, makes clear how little is known about the full risks of multiple egg extraction. In fact, the limited research has been done on infertile women, and therefore virtually nothing is known about the health impact on fertile women. In addition, the most recent research finding that ovarian stimulation drugs may increase the risk of uterine cancer adds to the concern that it is inappropriate to entice women into providing eggs for research by offering payments.

Payments beyond direct expenses commercialize reproductive material and create a market for human eggs, which could lead to the exploitation of economically vulnerable women. In these dire economic times, in particular, payments present a coercive incentive for women to risk their health for speculative benefit.

Furthermore, the work that calls for the eggs, somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), is only a tiny portion of human embryonic stem cell research. After almost ten years of work, it has been largely unsuccessful, with no stem cell lines produced. Meanwhile, new methods of cellular reprogramming have achieved the goals of SCNT: the derivation of patient- and disease-specific pluripotent stem cell lines. Some SCNT researchers are shifting their work to these new methods.

Presently, we are not aware of any regulatory or funding body in the world that condones compensation to women to provide eggs for stem cell research. It is expressly prohibited by law in California and Massachusetts, and is contrary to the National Academies' research guidelines, which are likely to be adopted as policy for federal funding in the near future. The guidelines of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, which you have cited in your meetings, do not explicitly endorse the practice, but instead acknowledge that it may be permitted in some locales.

We encourage you to refrain from becoming the first stem cell research body to cross a line that has been endorsed by so many others.

Jesse Reynolds
Director, Project on Biotechnology in the Public Interest
Center for Genetics and Society

Susan Fogel
Director
Pro-Choice Alliance for Responsible Research


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