- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

COPENHAGEN — Scientists have created the precursors of human sperm and eggs from “building block” stem cells, raising the prospect that infertile and homosexual couples could have babies that are genetically their own.

A British team, for the first time, has used embryonic stem cells to grow primordial germ cells, which later develop into either sperm or eggs. In addition to being potentially of use in assisted reproduction such as in vitro fertilization, synthetic sex cells could be used in therapeutic cloning and medical research.

Some researchers think the breakthrough means an egg, in theory, could be generated from a man’s own stem cells and even that a child could be created from sperm and an engineered egg from the same man.

Behrouz Aflatonian, a doctoral student at the Center for Stem Cell Biology at the University of Sheffield, was to announce the breakthrough to delegates at the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Copenhagen today.

“This suggests that human embryonic stem cells may have the ability to develop into primordial germ cells and early gametes [sperm or eggs] as has been shown previously for mouse embryonic stem cells,” Mr. Aflatonian said yesterday.

His supervisor at the center, professor Harry Moore, said, “Ultimately it might be possible to produce sperm and eggs for use in assisted conception treatments. This is a long way off, and we would have to prove it was safe.

“It would not be reproductive cloning, as fertilization would involve only one set of gametes produced in this way, and therefore a unique embryo would form.”

Scientists have achieved similar results in mice. Two years ago, a team led by Hans Scholer of the University of Pennsylvania reported the production of egglike cells from mouse embryonic stem cells.

Mr. Aflatonian derived embryonic stem-cell lines from embryos donated for research by couples undergoing in vitro fertilization treatment.

The human embryonic stem cells were allowed to develop into collections of cells called embryoid bodies. Within two weeks, a tiny proportion of cells in the embryoid bodies began to express some of the genes found in human primordial germ cells.

Some cells also expressed proteins found only in maturing sperm.

Producing functional mature sperm and eggs in the laboratory will be much more difficult because of the need to replicate the environment of the developing follicle for egg development or the tissue of the testis for sperm.

However, the breakthrough could help to solve an acute shortage of eggs and sperm donated for use by couples with fertility problems.

Eggs produced in the laboratory also could be used for therapeutic cloning — the transferring of genetic material from an adult cell to an emptied egg that is then stimulated to become an embryo.

“One of the reasons for doing this research is that it may allow us to investigate the very earliest processes of how a human gamete and gonad [ovary and testis] develops,” said Mr. Moore.

He said it was not clear whether the work meant a man’s cells could be used to grow an egg. However, Anna Smajdor, a researcher in medical ethics at Imperial College London, said: “Because the technique can be used to generate eggs from a man’s somatic cells, gay couples could have children genetically related to both. Single men could even produce a child using their own sperm and an engineered egg.”

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