Japanese research brings artificial sperm closer

Japanese researchers have found a way to turn mouse embryonic stem cells into sperm. A Kyoto University team coaxed mouse ESCs into sperm precursors, called primordial germ cells (PGCs), and showed that these cells can in turn give rise to healthy sperm.

When transplanted into mice that were unable to produce sperm normally, the stem cell derived PGCs produced normal-looking sperm, which were then used to successfully fertilize eggs. These fertilized eggs, when transplanted into a recipient mother, produced healthy offspring that grew into fertile male and female adult mice. The same procedure could produce fertile offspring from induced pluripotent stem cells that are often derived from adult skin cells.

A number of research teams have created PGCs in the past, but no healthy offspring have ever resulted.

Fertility expert Dr Allan Pacey, of the University of Sheffield, told the London Telegraph: "This is quite a step forward in developing a process by which sperm could be made for infertile men, perhaps by taking as a starting point a cell from their skin or from something like bone marrow. Clearly more work needs to be done to refine this process, but it's hugely exciting."

Already some research teams are trying to create sperm and eggs from induced pluripotent stem cells. This would make it possible for gay couples to have children who are genetically their own. Some progress has been made towards this headline-grabbing goal. Last year scientists at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston produced male and female mice from two fathers using iPS cells. The technique is too complicated to be practical but the potential for ethical controversy is enormous. As ethicist Insoo Hyun, of Case Western Resrve University, noted some time ago (Hastings Center Report, Jan-Feb 2008), “This fact could radically alter our commonsense notions of human fertility and infertility.” ~ The Scientist, Aug 4; Science Daily, Aug 4

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