Why Harvard Is Recruiting Egg Donors for Stem Cell Studies

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Stem cell research in the U.S. took a big leap forward Tuesday when the Harvard Stem Cell Institute (HSCI) announced that it would begin recruiting women to donate eggs that scientists will then use to generate human embryonic stem cells.

It's the first reported program launched by an academic institute to use fresh eggs in somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) to create stem cells. That's the technique that South Korean scientists claimed they had used to create nearly a dozen stem cell lines from diseased patients before admitting earlier this year that their results had been fabricated. HSCI will recruit donors first from the Boston area, Dr. Kevin Eggan, one of the lead investigators, told reporters. Although egg donors to IVF clinics are paid, HSCI decided not to compensate donors for the stem cell studies, to be sure that the women did not feel pressured to participate in the research for financial reasons (they will be reimbursed for expenses directly related to the study, including travel and child care, if needed). The women who agree to donate will also be required to sign a detailed informed consent form.

Making sure the donors were fully informed about their decision to donate was a priority for Harvard University's institutional review board, which took "more than two years of thoughtful, intensive review" before approving the studies, according to Harvard Provost Dr. Steven Hyman. Last year's scandal over the South Koreans' similar studies also weighed heavily on the board, and will continue to inform the researchers as their studies begin. "We certainly realize that all eyes [are] upon us," said Eggan. The approval process eventually involved four other institutes, including Boston IVF, where the egg donors will be recruited, Children's Hospital, Partners Health Care, Brigham and Women's Hospital and Columbia University, where some of the patients will be enrolled.

The goal of the studies will be to create disease-specific stem cells from patients; these cells could eventually lead to new treatments for conditions ranging from diabetes to Alzheimer's. "We're excited using SCNT as a way forward where in essence we can move the study of disease from patients to Petri dish," said Douglas Melton, co-director of the Harvard Stem Cell Institute, whose own son was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes, guiding his decision to focus his experiments on that disease first. He will take the donated eggs, remove their nuclei and replace them with skin cells taken from diabetic patients at Columbia University. The resulting embryo will generate stem cells that Melton's group will extract and hopefully coax into becoming pancreatic islet cells. These could then be injected into the patient to generate the insulin that they lack. If Melton can perfect the technique, it will ultimately allow patients to create their own, customized treatments from their own stem cells.

In another set of studies, Dr. Geroge Daly, a professor at Children's Hospital, will use excess embryos from IVF and remove stem cells from them to study blood diseases such as sickle cell anemia and bone marrow disorders. These will not be tailored to individual patients, but could provide valuable information about how these conditions work.

Dr. Eggan, a principal faculty member at HSCI, will work with Melton on diabetes and also generate stem cells to study nerve diseases such as Lou Gehrig's disease.

All of this work is funded by private donations to HSCI, since President Bush banned the use of federal funding to create new human embryonic stem cell lines in 2001. The HSCI occupies separate lab space on the University's campus to avoid violating the ban.