Health, Science & Tech NEWS
No men OR women needed: artificial sperm and eggs created for first time
Published by onlines on October 29, 2009
Eggs and sperm have been grown in the laboratory in a breakthrough process that could change the face of parenthood.
It paves the way for infertile men and women, including those left sterile by cancer treatment, to have children that are biologically their own.
The ground-breaking research also raises the prospect of a ‘miracle pill’ that staves off the menopause, allowing women to wait longer to have a child.
Forever fertile? Infertile men and women could have their own biological children using the breakthrough sperm and eggs
But the ability to generate life from the earliest stages also raises myriad moral and ethical concerns.
These include the possibility of children being born through entirely artificial means and men and women being sidelined from the process of making babies.
The U.S. government-funded research, published in the prestigious journal Nature, centres on stem cells, ‘master cells’ widely seen as a repair kit for the body.
The Stanford University scientists found the right cocktail of chemicals and vitamins to coax the cells into turning into eggs and sperm.
The sperm had heads and short tails and are thought to have been mature enough to fertilise an egg.
The eggs were at a much earlier stage but were still much more developed than any created so far by other scientists.
The double success raises the prospect of men and women one day ‘growing’ their own sperm and eggs for use in IVF treatments.
The American team used stem cells taken from embryos in the first days of life but hope to repeat the process with slivers of skin.
The skin cells would first be exposed to a mixture that wound back their biological clocks to embryonic stem cell state, before being transformed into sperm or eggs.
Starting with a person’s own skin would also mean the lab-grown sperm or eggs would not be rejected by the body.
The science also raises the possibility of ‘male eggs’ made from men’s skin and ‘female sperm’.
Controversial: Britain’s oldest mother Elizabeth Adeney, 67, who went abroad for IVF, is pictured here with her newborn son in June this year
This would allow gay and lesbian couples to have children that are genetically their own, although many scientists are sceptical about whether it is possible to create sperm from female cells which lack the male Y chromosome.
The U.S. breakthrough could also unlock many of the secrets of egg and sperm production, leading to new drug treatments for infertility, a heartbreaking but little understood condition that affects one in six couples.
Defects in sperm and egg development are the biggest cause of infertility but, because many of the key stages occur in the womb, scientists have struggled to study the process in detail.
Researcher Rita Reijo Pera said: ‘We arise from eggs and sperm but we don’t really know how they are made.
‘We are going to learn an incredible amount about human development. Sometimes the public doesn’t understand how amazingly powerful that is scientifically.
‘The amount of knowledge we can get is absolutely amazing.’
A greater understanding of the process could also produce a pill that slows the ageing of a woman’s own stock of eggs, delaying menopause.
However, safety and ethical concerns mean that artificial sperm and eggs are much further away from use. British law would prevent them being used in fertility treatment here.
Darren Griffin, professor of genetics at Kent University, said the potential of the American work was ‘enormous’.
Dr Allan Pacey, a Sheffield University expert in male fertility said: ‘Ultimately this may help us find a cure for male infertility.
‘Not necessarily by making sperm in the laboratory, I personally think that it unlikely but by identifying new targets for drugs or genes that may stimulate sperm production to occur naturally.
‘This is a long way off, but it is a laudable dream.’
But critics say it is wrong to meddle with the building blocks of life.
Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said that IVF should be the preserve of married couples.
He said: ‘We are very keen to promote ethical IVF treatments which respect the sanctity of life and the marriage bond.
‘The question is, why are we creating artificial gametes (eggs and sperm) and aborting 200,000 babies a year when there are many, many couples willing to adopt?’
Dr Saunders, a former surgeon, said that many cases of infertility have their roots in modern life, in which sexually-transmitted diseases are rife and growing numbers of women are putting off motherhood.
‘In a sense we are trying to use technology to compensate for our arguably poor lifestyle choices.’
osephine Quintavalle, of campaign group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, warned that any flaws in the artificial sperm or eggs could be passed on to future generations.
She added: ‘Our means of addressing infertility are becoming more and more convoluted.
‘We have to learn how to say “no”.’
Anthony Ozimic, of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said: ‘As with IVF, artificial insemination and the use of donor gametes, the use of artificial gametes in reproduction would distort and damage relations between family members.
‘There are no instances of any major medical advance achieved by abandoning basic ethical principles such as safeguarding the right to life.’
Dr Reijo Pera said any future use of artificial eggs and sperm would have to be subject to guidelines.
She said: ‘Whether one builds the boundaries on religion or just on an internal sense of right and wrong, these are important.
‘In this field, it is not “anything goes”.’
Scientists at Newcastle University claimed to have made sperm from embryonic stem cells earlier this year but the research paper has been retracted. ( source: dailymail )
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