Dream of fatherhood for thousands of infertile men a step closer as scientists 'grow' sperm from skinScientific technique could help thousands of men become fathers
But it is fraught with moral and ethical concerns
23:05 GMT, 28 August 2012
Scientists have succeeded in making early-stage sperm from human skin tissue.
The technique could potentially help thousands of infertile men, including survivors of childhood cancer, fulfil their dream of fatherhood.
Using sperm ‘grown’ from slivers of their skin could one day allow them to father children that are genetically their own.
What is more, by unlocking the intricacies of male reproduction, the breakthrough could also lead to new contraceptives and a ‘miracle pill’ to treat infertility.
Breakthrough: Scientists have made early-stage sperm from human skin tissue, a technique which could potentially help thousands of infertile men
But the science is also fraught with moral and ethical concerns. Critics argue it is wrong to meddle with the building blocks of life and warn of a future in which babies are created through entirely artificial means.
Scientists have already succeeded in coaxing embryonic stem cells – master cells plucked from embryos in their first days of life – into turning into sperm.
But using skin as a starting point would be more ethically acceptable.
It would also mean the sperm would have the man’s genes.
The American scientists used a cocktail of chemicals to wind back the ‘biological clock’ in skin cells, turning them into cells with the chameleon-like powers of embryonic stem cells.
‘It is good work, there is no doubt about that.’ – Dr Allan Pacey, a male fertility expert at Sheffield University
They then used a combination of
nutrients to coax them to developing into round cells which were just a
few steps away from mature sperm and appeared genetically normal.
University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine team, led by Dr James
Easley, believe they have cracked the most difficult part of sperm
that by tweaking the procedure it should now be relatively easy to get
to the next stage – elongated cells that, while yet to grow tails,
should be able to fertilise eggs.
The technique is still many years away from use in clinics and, as the law stands, lab-grown sperm are banned from use in the UK.
Success: The technique has been developed by scientists at the University of Pittsburgh's School of Medicine
But in the shorter-term, the breakthrough, detailed in the journal Cell Reports, could lead to new infertility drugs and contraceptives.
One in six couples has problems starting a family and male infertility is to blame 40 per cent of the time.
In up to a third of these cases, no one knows what exactly is wrong.
Dr Allan Pacey, a male fertility expert at Sheffield University, said: ‘It is good work, there is no doubt about that.’
Philippa Taylor, of the Christian Medical Fellowship, said: ‘The researchers acknowledge that their work is “fraught with bioethical challenges”.
'It does raise questions about what else it could be used for in the future.’
All of the early-stage sperm were made from male skin samples.
Attempts at using female skin failed, suggesting men will always have an important role in the creation of life.
Other research teams are trying to make eggs from women’s skin, raising the possibility of eggs and sperm being used to create children through entirely artificial means.