February 20, 2024

UK scientists call for embryo bank to increase material for research

Donations of “spare” IVF human embryos to scientific research in the UK have nosedived over the past 15 years, according to The Guardian. The latest available figures show that 17,925 embryos were donated in 2004, and only 675 in 2019.

The reasons for the decline are complex. The Guardian blames “increasing commercialisation of IVF, overstretched NHS clinics and cumbersome paperwork.

Leading stem cell scientist Kathy Niakan, of the University of Cambridge, painted a bleak picture of crippled research programmes and emotionally traumatised patients.

“Some [patients] had to go through counselling because it’s taken so long for them to be able to fulfil their wishes to donate to research. Some of them have paid extra storage fees just to give time for the whole process and all the paperwork to go through,” she told The Guardian. “They shouldn’t be put in that position. Somebody needs to step in and make it a lot easier.”

Professor Niakan is frustrated at the waste of premier research material. “There are tens of thousands of good quality embryos that are no longer needed by patients which could be incredibly valuable for research,” she said.

The UK’s fertility watchdog, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, says that it wants to streamline the process of securing consent from potential donors. At the moment, they must consent to specific research projects. It would be far easier if they could just donate to an embryo bank which would allocate them as required.

The HFEA conducted a consultation to strengthen its case for an embryo bank. Professor Niakan and the HFEA highlighted the fact that about half of embryo donors and medical professionals supported this. However, the consultation suggests that the public is not; 86% were opposed to research embryo banking. The HFEA notes that: “Responses received are only representative of those who completed the survey and should not be interpreted as being representative of UK public opinion”.  

Curiously, the HFEA concluded that: “Overall, there was some support for generic consent to research embryo banking due to the challenges of the current consent to research regime.” This seems to ignore its own findings from the consultation.