New York to Pay Women Who Give Eggs for Stem Cell Research

By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

New York has become the first state to allow taxpayer-funded researchers to pay women for giving their eggs for embryonic stem cell research, a move welcomed by many scientists but condemned by critics who fear it will lead to the exploitation of vulnerable women.

The Empire State Stem Cell Board, which decides how to spend $600 million in state funding for stem cell studies, will allow researchers to compensate women up to $10,000 for the time, discomfort and expenses associated with donating eggs for experiments.

"We want to enhance the potential of stem cell research. If we are going to encourage stem cell research as a solution for a variety of diseases, we should remove barriers to the greatest extent possible," said David Hohn, vice chairman of the board's two committees that endorsed the move. "We decided to break some new territory."

The little-noted decision two weeks ago puts New York at odds with policies in every other state that provides funding for human embryonic stem cell research and with prevailing guidelines from scientific organizations, including the National Academy of Sciences.

The move was welcomed, however, by proponents of stem cell research, stem cell scientists and some bioethicists, who said it would remove a major obstacle to pursuing some of the most exciting goals of the research -- including producing replacement tissues tailored to individual patients.

"This is a really great, appropriate policy," said Susan Solomon, co-founder of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, a private, nonprofit research organization. "This could help us to pursue some critical experiments that we hope will lead to treatments for devastating diseases."

But the decision was questioned by others, including opponents and some proponents of stem cell research.

"In a field that's already the object of a great deal of controversy, the question is, are we at the point where we really need to go that route in order to do the science?" said Jonathan D. Moreno, a professor of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "I'm not convinced."

A Controversial Field

Supporters consider human embryonic stem cell research one of most promising fields in biomedical science. Because the cells are believed capable of becoming virtually any tissue in the body, researchers hope they will lead to cures for a host of major afflictions, including diabetes, Parkinson's disease and paralysis. But the field is highly controversial, largely because the cells are derived by destroying days-old embryos, a process some consider the equivalent of killing a person.

One of the goals of the research is to produce cells tailored to individual patients through a process known as somatic cell nuclear transfer. Also called therapeutic cloning, the procedure involves replacing the genetic material in a human egg with genes from the nucleus of a patient's cell, and stimulating the egg to develop into an early embryo. That could, theoretically, produce stem cells that would not be rejected by the recipient's immune system.

Although no one has succeeded in producing human stem cells that way, researchers are trying and have been frustrated by the difficulty of obtaining eggs. Attempts to solicit women to donate eggs for such research have largely failed.

"The lack of compensation has meant it's been nearly impossible to get enough eggs," said Douglas A. Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute in Boston.

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