Uncovering the Long-Term Health Outcomes for Egg Donors

Despite the popularity of egg donation, the long-term health outcomes of egg donors are largely unknown. UCSF School of Nursing researchers are launching a pilot project that could provide prospective donors with more information. (Photo credit: iStock)

By Milenko Martinovoch

Egg donation has been in practice for over 30 years and has helped thousands of families have children. Yet, significant health aspects about egg donation are still a mystery. 

For this reason, Diane Tober, an assistant professor at the UCSF School of Nursing, has launched a series of investigations related to egg donation and freezing. She started the parent study, The OVADO Project, in 2015, and now has almost 500 egg donor participants from around the world—many of whom she’s been following for several years. 

“We really have very little information about risks and benefits of egg donation, or on donor’s decisions and experiences in the short term or over time,” Tober said. “We don’t really know if there is a causal connection between undergoing controlled ovarian stimulation and deleterious outcomes, but if we can start to collect that data and track people over time, we can begin to get a better idea."

Tober and her colleagues Monica McLemore and Kimberly Baltzell are launching a new pilot project that aims to compare the decisions and experiences of women who freeze or donate eggs. The project could give anyone considering undergoing controlled ovarian stimulation more information about the potential impact on their health and well being, and improve informed consent. 

“As a medical anthropologist, I also think it’s important to understand how the egg donation process may operate differently in different cultural settings, as well as to draw comparisons between different groups of people who undergo the same process but for different purposes. So, I’ve been looking at this issue from numerous vantage points.” 

Unknown Health Risks

People who choose to donate or freeze their eggs endure a weeks-long regimen of hormones and medications to increase egg production, a process known as controlled ovarian stimulation. The lasting effects of this regimen are unclear, due to lack of longitudinal studies specifically on egg donors. Yet Tober said potential donors are often told that health risks are less than 1 percent. 

Without research to prove if the hormonal therapy is harmful, anecdotal evidence of otherwise healthy young women developing cancer has become magnified. Baltzell, an associate adjunct professor, has studied cancer risk among young women and is intrigued by what the pilot study will uncover.

“There is so much study and publicity around hormonal replacement therapy and menopausal women and cancer risk, it seemed interesting to me to look at what happens to pre-menopausal women with basically a bolus of hormones, which is what’s required to stimulate egg production,” Baltzell said. 

Read the full story in our Science of Caring online publication.