Scientists may soon be able to create human sperm and eggs using ordinary cells – a boon for those with fertility problems that raises troubling ethical questions
Forty years ago, couples suffering from infertility were given hope by the birth of Louise Brown, the first “test-tube baby”. But although millions of babies have now been born by IVF, the technique can offer no help to couples eager to have a child that is genetically theirs but who lack the eggs or sperm to make it: men whose testes produce no sperm, say, or women who have undergone surgery for ovarian cancer. Some opt for donor eggs or sperm, but an alternative may be on the way. Scientists are making steady progress towards creating human eggs and sperm – the so-called gametes that combine in fertilisation – artificially in a petri dish.
The idea is to make them from the ordinary “somatic” cells of the body, such as skin. The feasibility of such an extraordinary transformation of our flesh has only been recognised for 11 years. But already it is revolutionising medicine and assisted reproductive technologies may eventually feel the benefits too. If gametes grown in vitro prove safe for reproduction, the possibilities are dramatic – but could also be disconcerting, and might go well beyond providing eggs and sperm for those who lack them. Instead of having to undergo a painful egg-production and extraction procedure involving doses of hormones with uncertain long-term effects, a woman could have an almost limitless supply of eggs made from a scrap of skin. Huge numbers of embryos could be created easily and painlessly. What might we do with such a choice?
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