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Donating to research

Scientists need eggs, sperm and embryos to carry out research to understand and improve fertility treatments. Without this kind of research treatments like IVF wouldn’t exist, and without future research there can be no improvement to treatments.

Eggs, sperm and embryos are also needed for other areas of medical research, including understanding serious genetic conditions.

Why donate to fertility research?

You might be considering donation to research because:

  • you have embryos in storage that you no longer need for treatment or
  • you might already have discussed with your clinic the possibility of donating any fresh embryos that are not suitable for treatment

In both cases, your donation could make an important contribution to improvements in research and treatment.

The world’s first IVF baby, Louise Brown, was born in the UK in 1978. Her birth – and the millions that have followed - would not have been possible without embryo research to test whether IVF was safe and effective.

More recent research has led to a ground-breaking technique that helps people with severe mitochondrial disease in their family from having an affected child.

Find out more about embryo research currently being carried out in the UK.

Who can donate?

There are no age restrictions or screening criteria for donating your embryos to research. Both you and your partner will need to agree to consent (if your embryos were created using both your eggs and sperm) to the donation. However, if your embryos were created using donor eggs or sperm, the consent of those donors would be needed. 

How are eggs, sperm and embryos used in research?

There are strict legal limits on using eggs, sperm and embryos in research. Embryos cannot be used beyond 14 days after fertilisation and can only be used in research that aims to:

  • increase knowledge about and develop treatments for serious diseases
  • develop new fertility treatments
  • increase knowledge about the causes of miscarriages
  • develop more efficient techniques of contraception
  • develop methods for testing embryos for genetic diseases before implantation
  • increase knowledge about how embryos develop.

Research might involve observing how the embryo develops or making changes to the embryo. Sometimes researchers might want to take cells from the embryo which can then be used for further studies. If this type of research is being proposed, your clinic will explain the implications of this to you before you are asked to give your consent.

Are there any rules around conducting research on embryos?

Yes. Anyone who wishes to carry out research using human embryos must apply to us for a licence.

With the support of experts from across the field, we examine the proposed research to ensure that it is ethical and lawful. We then decide whether or not to grant a licence and allow the research to go ahead. We regularly carry out inspections of licensed research laboratories to ensure that projects are being carried out properly.

Embryos used in research are not allowed to develop beyond 14 days after fertilisation and they can never be transferred to a woman’s womb. 

Research is the bedrock for the development of new techniques in fertility. Without donation, some of the treatments we take for granted today wouldn't even exist.

How can I donate?

To donate your embryos to a research project, your clinic will need to have a link with a research team. If they do and they are looking for donors, your clinic will give you information about the research. If you are interested in donating your embryos, you will be asked to give written consent. Both people who provided eggs and sperm to make the embryos (normally you and your partner) need to give consent.

Not all clinics have links with research teams, so it may not be possible to donate to research. Ask the staff at your clinic whether it has a research link and whether they are looking for embryo donors.

Fresh embryos used in research are normally those that are not suitable for treatment, perhaps because they did not develop properly . Your clinic will discuss the possibility of donation to research before your treatment starts.

Frozen embryos used in research are donated by patients who no longer need them for treatment. This might be something you consider after you have finished treatment, possibly a few years later.

You can speak to a counsellor before making your decisions.

Can I change my mind?

Yes, you can withdraw your consent at any stage up until your embryos are used by the researchers. To do that, contact your clinic.

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Review date: 4 October 2019