Scientists given go-ahead to use cheap IVF to obtain eggs for stem cell research.
Women are to be offered cut-price fertility treatment for handing over half their eggs to cloning researchers. The controversial 'egg-sharing' scheme will allow women to halve the pounds 3,500 cost of In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) at the Newcastle NHS Fertility Centre.
In return, they will have to surrender half their fresh eggs to the scientists.
Critics described the move as showing 'contempt' for public opinion and 'lunacy'.
Once in the laboratory, the eggs will be used to create cloned early-stage embryos, from which it is hoped to extract stem cells.
Embryonic stem cells (ESCs) are unprogrammed 'mother' cells with the potential to become any tissue in the body, from bone to brain.
Scientists hope research on ESCs will revolutionise medicine, yielding new treatments for incurable conditions such Parkinson's disease. But to carry out the work they need eggs.
Until now, British researchers investigating stem cells and therapeutic cloning have generally had to make do with surplus unfertilised eggs from IVF clinics. However, this generates a highly-restricted supply of poor-quality eggs.
For the best chance of success, scientists know they must have a good source of fresh eggs, rather than 'failed' clinic rejects.
Egg sharing, allowing women to pay towards other people's IVF treatment in return for eggs, is already in operation, but the scientists from Newcastle and Durham universities are the first to be allowed to extend the system to provide eggs for research.
The new scheme involves the research team, from the North East England Stem Cell Institute (Nesci), paying half the cost of an egg donor's IVF treatment.
But critics accused fertility regulators the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA), which granted the research licence, of caving in under pressure from the scientists.
A final decision on egg donation to scientists is expected from the HFEA in February next year. Josephine Quintavalle, from the group Comment on Reproductive Ethics (Core) described the move as 'lunacy'. She said, 'Vulnerable infertile women are going to be put under pressure. They are extremely susceptible to coercion.' Dr David King, director of Human Genetics Alert, accused the HFEA of showing 'contempt' for public opinion. Alison Murdoch, Professor of Reproductive Medicine at Newcastle University and director of the fertility clinic supplying the donors, dismissed the criticisms. 'Volunteers have been essential to medical research for many years and this is just another way of engaging volunteers in a research project,' she said.