WOMEN are to be allowed to donate their eggs to medical researchers for altruistic reasons, regulators agreed yesterday.
In the past women have only been allowed to donate spare eggs produced through IVF treatment or medical procedures such as sterilisation.
But now the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) has agreed that women can donate their eggs for altruistic reasons to help forward research using stem cells to tackle serious diseases.
Researchers carrying out therapeutic cloning studies to find treatments for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's have complained that a shortage of eggs is hampering progress.
Only two centres in the UK - Edinburgh and Newcastle - currently hold licences to carry out therapeutic cloning and are likely to be the first to benefit from the HFEA's decision.
Women donating eggs will be able to claim up to 250 in expenses, although the HFEA stressed this was not a payment, but compensation.
Lord Richard Harries of Pentregarth, a member of the HFEA and Nuffield Council on Bioethics, said: "We are not talking about earnings, we are talking about compensation up to a maximum which is not great. It is comparable to jury service."
At a meeting in London yesterday, the HFEA also said women should be allowed to donate to medical research through egg-sharing schemes, in which they get cut-price IVF in return for giving some of their eggs to researchers.
The regulator faced criticism last year when it gave the go-ahead to such a scheme by researchers in Newcastle before consultation was completed.
The move has also been criticised by ethics campaigners.
Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE) said the HFEA's enthusiasm for stem-cell research had "blinded them to their duty to the welfare of women".
Josephine Quintavalle, director of CORE, said some risks involved in stimulating women to produce eggs were "alarming".
"The ethical concerns become particularly significant when the procedure is undertaken not for the patients' own benefit," she said.
But Emily Jackson, professor of medical law at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "The emphasis on the risks is really regrettable. Women who are about to have IVF will be under the impression it's an incredibly dangerous thing to do, but the risks are incredibly low."
The decision was welcomed by medical researchers.
Professor Ian Wilmut, from the Centre for Reproductive Biology at Edinburgh University, said: "Research with stem cells from cloned human embryos will help us to understand and then treat unpleasant inherited diseases such as Motor Neurone Disease and Parkinson's disease.
"The announcement from the HFEA recognises the importance of altruistic egg donation for this and other research."
Q & A: RISKS, REWARDS AND SAFEGUARDS
How do doctors harvest eggs from women?
Patients are given drugs to stimulate their ovaries to produce more eggs.
When the eggs are mature they are removed, ready for use in IVF or research.
What risks are involved?
The drugs given to donors can cause complications including ovarian hyperstimulation, which can be serious. But doctors say such risks to donors remain low.
Will women be told what their eggs will be used for?
The HFEA said women should be given information about the realistic outcomes of any research where their eggs are used and the impact of their donation on medical work.
What safeguards are in place so women are not pressurised into donating eggs?
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority said the system would be closely regulated.
Women would not be able to donate without considering the matter seriously and receiving counselling. They will have a "cooling-off" period when they can change their minds.