Both the Washington Post and the New York Times are running articles today on the state’s decision to pay women up to $10,000 for donating eggs for stem cell research. (The Post is the stronger article, but most of the nuances are on the second page). This was covered last week in the Niche and the Great Beyond.)
The articles do not mention the pressing scientific question these eggs might answer: how good are iPS cells? Everyone is excited about induced pluripotent stem cells, but no one understands their limitations. Right now, there is anecdotal evidence that iPS cells don’t behave exactly like ES cells, but perhaps that’s because the best techniques haven’t been worked out yet. The best way to learn this is to compare genetically identical stem cells generated by both methods. For one set of stem cells, you’d take a skin biopsy from Patient A, reprogram the cells to pluripotency. That’s iPS cells. For the other stem cells, you’d do somatic cell nuclear transfer: put a nucleus from one of Patient A’s cells into an enucleated egg, grow that to a hollow-ball embryo, and use it to make embryonic stem cells. Now you’ve got both ES and iPS cells carrying patient A’s genes.
(BTW: This is a tricky situation for career-minded scientists. Find no differences, no one will notice, AND you’ll look foolish if someone else comes along later and sees something you overlooked. Find differences, and worry about looking foolish if you’ve published an artifact.)
Nonetheless, this is a situation in which people really do need more information for informed debate. Unlike for humans, embryonic stem cells have been cloned for monkeys and mice. iPS cells have also been made from these creatures. Those of you who have genetically identical iPS and ES cells for mice and monkeys, we need to see your results!
My guess is that the scientists hoping to use human eggs in stem cell research believe strongly that they will find something interesting (though of course that in itself does not justify research)
Objections to the research in the articles are 1) that paying women for eggs exploits them and 2) that scientists should avoid controversy. The Post article goes on to describe that women are already paid for eggs, but only if the eggs are intended for making babies, not stem cells.
The articles also did not mention the egg-sharing program which is widely accepted in the UK. Women seeking IVF treatment get a discount for donating unfertilized eggs collected. Also, bioethicist Insoo Hyun has argued that oocyte providers should be given the same consideration and compensation as other healthy research subjects. (See that Nature commentary)
It’s unclear whether those objecting to egg payments for stem cells also object to egg payments for in vitro fertilization. But it is true that the most sought-after IVF egg donors are college-educated and so have more options to earn more money. If there is a worry that paying poor, oppressed women for eggs exploits them, why not only allow college-educated women to donate eggs for stem cell research? They can already choose to sell eggs to fertility clinics. (There is precedent for this kind of discrimination; I’ve been paid for participating in scientific research in which all subjects were required to have a biology degree; this was considered necessary for giving informed consent.)