- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 27, 2002

Chicago researchers are testing a fertility procedure that could allow men without sperm, and possibly even lesbians, to father children.
It's a process in which doctors would treat cells taken from a spermless man or a woman and turn the cells into artificial sperm that would fertilize another woman's eggs. If the technique works as planned, it could result in children who have genes from both partners in a relationship, regardless of sex.
Scientists at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago and researchers in Australia have had success in testing the procedure in mice. The Chicago researchers soon will begin testing it in human eggs.
"In about 18 months or two years or so, we will know if this technique is going to work in humans," Mohammed Taranissi, director of the Assisted Gynecology Research Center in London, said in a telephone interview. He has been working with the Chicago team.
A rash of recent articles, primarily in British newspapers, has emphasized the benefits this procedure could hold for lesbian couples seeking to become parents. However, "that has never been the intention," Mr. Taranassi said. "This is a technique developed to help men with no sperm" after receiving chemotherapy or radiotherapy or from some other cause.
But Mr. Taranassi does not deny that lesbians also might be able to make use of the technology. "The theory is: Anything's possible," he said.
A report on BBC featured a lesbian couple from Coventry, England, who said they would like to sign up for medical trials of the new experimental procedure. "It would mean everything to us to have our own baby," said the women, identified only as Adele and Dawn.
Robert Rebar, executive director of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, said he recognizes lesbians would like to have an alternative to artificial insemination with donor sperm currently the primary way they become pregnant but he has not heard of any groundswell.
Leland Traiman, operator of a sperm bank in Oakland, Calif., whose female clientele is overwhelmingly lesbian, said he's certain lesbians would like an alternative. "There would be a whole bunch of women who would be interested in this …, but there's a difference between serendipity and really saying, 'We want to do this,'" he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Traiman said he's sure the new fertility technique, if successful, will cost would-be parents many thousands of dollars, like in-vitro fertilization. "Most lesbians couldn't afford it, … only the rich," he said.
In contrast, he said, a woman can buy donor sperm and be inseminated with it at his clinic for less than $1,000.
Mr. Traiman said he knows of two wealthy lesbian couples who spent big money so that one woman in each relationship donated her eggs to the other, who was trying to have a baby. "But that's not the best use of resources," he said,.
Attempts to get reactions from such organizations as the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, the National Lesbian and Gay Law Center, the Seattle-based Lesbian Resource Center and the San Francisco-based National Center for Lesbian Rights were unsuccessful.
Mr. Taranissi said the technique being tested by Yuri Verlinsky and colleagues at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago involves taking any cell from a man without sperm and treating it to try to cut in half the number of chromosomes it contains. Every cell in the human body, except for sperm and egg cells, contains 46 chromosomes. Those reproductive cells have only 23 each.
The researchers would take the artificial sperm that's been created and inject it into an egg cell. "You'd get an embryo" whose genetic material is "half from the mother and half from the father," he said. The father would be a woman if the artificial sperm was created from a cell removed from a lesbian.
Some scientists view the revolutionary procedure as risky. They note that the technique involves two sets of chromosomes, one set inherited from each parent, that are forced to split in half. They believe it could result in babies with metabolic disorders or serious illnesses such as cancer that might not be apparent until long after birth.
"I'd be concerned it could result in birth defects. … I think it's crossing the line ethically. … It's so close to reproductive cloning," said Sharon Mills, president of Pacific Reproductive Services, a sperm bank in San Francisco whose clientele is 90 percent lesbian. Ms. Mills said she is a lesbian.
Her comments sounded similar to those of Wendy Wright, spokeswoman for Concerned Women for America. "It's a perversion of nature. … I have grave concern that they are going to test this procedure on human eggs. It shows a complete lack of concern for the child," said Miss Wright.
Asked if there is reason for worry, Mr. Rebar of the American Society for Rerproductive Medicine, said, "Nobody knows the answer to that yet." Asked about the possibility of harm to infants conceived through this new method, he said, "I'd be concerned it could result in birth defects."

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