Scientists have been working in mouse models to transform body cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, and from there into sperm and eggs. Researchers in Kyoto, Japan have been able to use these cells in fertilization, resulting in some healthy and fertile offspring being born. From the Wall Street Journal story:
Japanese scientists have made viable mouse eggs in a laboratory dish, an advance that may offer a new route for treating infertility in people. The experiment completes a long-sought quest in reproductive biology: to make sperm and eggs in a lab dish. A year ago, the same core group of scientists at Kyoto University created healthy mouse sperm in the lab. In the latest experiment, the dish-created eggs were fertilized with natural mouse sperm to create healthy, fertile mice. The research appears in the journal Science.
We live in an era during which many in bioethics and law assert that the right to procreate is near-absolute, meaning that anyone should have the right to have a child — and by any means they choose, if safe to so do.
That ethical claim and these early experiments got me to thinking: It’s a long way off, but could this technique theoretically result in turning skin cells from a man into eggs, and/or skin cells from a female into sperm, resulting in potential male mothers and female fathers? To find out, I asked biologist Dr. David Prentice of the Family Research Council. He told me:
It is unlikely that you’d get Y-bearing sperm from female cells [that create males]. You might get X-bearing sperm from female cells though, and possibly eggs from male cells.
One mouse experiment a few years ago suggested that this was a possibility, though in their experiments, they had a really hard time getting anything functional. The functional aspect is the real news here in this new report, even though it’s poor in terms of efficiency.
It seems to me that the time to think about these extraordinary possibilities is now, before they can be accomplished, rather than waiting until the technology rushes past our ethical deliberations as too often happens these days.
That mind-exploding point aside, the primary purpose for using this technique in humans would probably be to create mass egg quantities for use in cloning experiments. Each cloning attempt (using SCNT, the technique resulting in Dolly) requires a human egg. At present, human cloning has not been reported — primarily because of the “egg dearth” that inhibits researchers from the kind of repeated trial and error experiments necessary to perfect technique in humans.
Scientists probably need thousands of eggs to figure out human cloning, but they are in extremely short supply because the only sources currently are women of child-bearing age. Efforts are ongoing to remedy that problem — such as using eggs taken from the ovaries of aborted female fetuses or removed from women surgically. If the IPSC approach can be made to work in humans, there would be an infinite supply of eggs, meaning that human cloning would just be a matter of time.