Bioethicists are calling for a change in the way that unused eggs in IVF clinics are used. Rather than being discarded, they should be donated to women that have mitochondrial disease
Professor Catherine Mills, director of Monash Bioethics Centre told the Sydney Morning Herald, “An opt-out consent process would help ease Australia’s donor egg shortage by automatically allocating unwanted frozen eggs to government-funded research aimed at perfecting a type of assisted reproductive technology, called mitochondrial donation – also known as three-parent IVF”.
Currently, women whose eggs haven’t been used after ten years in storage have the option to extend storage, donate them or discard them. If she cannot be contacted, they’re automatically discarded.
But Professor Mills says, “These eggs are a source of precious biological material that could ultimately help other women conceive healthy, genetically related children”.
“They are just being thrown out, not because people request it but because they didn’t request anything else.”
“Instead of discarding these eggs, the default should be donating them to mitochondrial donation or other forms of research,” she said, as she presented the proposal to IVF specialists at the Fertility Society of Australia’s conference in Sydney on behalf of her bioethicist colleagues from Monash University and the University of Sydney.
Mitochondrial disease is a group of 300 different disorders caused by mutations in the mitochondria in the nucleus of our cells. It’s an inherited disorder that can cause organ failure, blindness, deafness, brain disorders and muscular problems and there is no known treatment.
Around 50 babies are born each year in Australia with the condition, and many die before they reach five years old.
As a result, a new bill has recently passed allowing women to have biological children, without passing on the disease, after it was first legalised in the UK. The procedure, called mitochondrial donation, involves combining the genetic material from three people – the mother, the father and the egg donor.
29 year old Bethany Hodge learned that she carried the gene for mitochondrial disease after her sister was diagnosed
She told the paper, “I’ve always dreamed of having a baby that had a part of me in them. But that is not something I want my child – and their future children – to face.”
Bethany and her partner James Frost see mitochondrial donation as their best chance of having a child that carries their DNA, but without the risk of also carrying or having mitochondrial disease.
But as Professor Mills says, an acute shortage of donated eggs is standing in the way of this procedure helping families break the cycle. The demand for donated eggs is outstripping supply, but at the same time, the number of women freezing their eggs is increasing.
It’s too early to know how many of these eggs will go on to be needed, but one UK study suggests that it’s around 20%.
Professor Mills says of her proposal, “Women wanting to freeze their eggs would be counselled about their options from the very beginning and will always have the choice to opt-out at any time.”