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Lab-derived Sperm Does Not Make Men Redundant

Relax guys, the British scientist who led the team that created human sperm from stem cells in a laboratory does not believe that the technique makes men redundant.


“However, researchers believe that the issue does need to be debated and legislated for,” says Professor Karim Nayernia at Newcastle University and the North East England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI).

“As work progresses and results improve at Newcastle and elsewhere, it may, in theory, be possible to develop IVD [in vitro derived] sperm from embryonic stem lines which have been stored,” he says on the NESCI Web site.

Illustration courtesy NIH

NESCI announced today that human sperm has been created using embryonic stem cells for the first time in a scientific development. The tecnique “will lead researchers to a better understanding of the causes of infertility,” the Institute said in a statement.

The work is published today (July 8, 2009) in the academic journal Stem Cells and Development.

“This is an important development as it will allow researchers to study in detail how sperm forms and lead to a better understanding of infertility in men–why it happens and what is causing it,” Nayernia said. “This understanding could help us develop new ways to help couples suffering infertility so they can have a child which is genetically their own.”

“It will also allow scientists to study how cells involved in reproduction are affected by toxins, for example, why young boys with leukaemia who undergo chemotherapy can become infertile for life–and possibly lead us to a solution.”

The team also believe that studying the process of forming sperm could lead to a better understanding of how genetic diseases are passed on.

In the technique developed at Newcastle, stem cells with XY chromosomes (male) were developed into germline stem cells which were then prompted to complete meiosis–cell division with halving of the chromosome set. These were shown to produce fully mature sperm, called scientifically in vitro derived sperm (IVD sperm), NESCI said.

“In contrast, stem cells with XX chromosomes (female) were prompted to form early stage sperm, spermatagonia, but did not progress further. This demonstrates to researchers that the genes on a Y chromosome are essential for meiosis and for sperm maturation.”

The IVD sperm will not and cannot be used for fertility treatment, NESCI added. “As well as being prohibited by UK law, the research team say fertilization of human eggs and implantation of embryos would hold no scientific merit for them as they want to study the process as a model for research.”

The ability to make sperm in a lab does not mean an end to men, Nayernia says. “In this technique IVD sperm could only be produced from an embryo containing a male (Y) chromosome.”

“This does not mean that humans can be produced ‘in a dish’ and we have no intention of doing this.”

“While we can understand that some people may have concerns, this does not mean that humans can be produced ‘in a dish’ and we have no intention of doing this. This work is a way of investigating why some people are infertile and the reasons behind it. If we have a better understanding of what’s going on it could lead to new ways of treating infertility,” Nayernia said.

In theory it might be possible to make a baby from IVD sperm, Nayernia says on the NESCI Web site, as the IVD sperm show all the characteristics of sperm–that is they act and look like sperm. “However, this work is not being done to make a baby which is prohibited by law.”


Illustration courtesy NIH

The work is in early stages and much more investigation needs to be done on understanding the process and for testing the suitability and safety of IVD sperm as a possible fertility treatment.

“Nayernia believes that in 10 years this could be a treatment offered for example, to young boys who have to undergo chemotherapy which currently often leaves them infertile,” NESCI says.

“When combined with other pioneering stem cell techniques, specifically somatic cell nuclear transfer, it could also allow men who are currently infertile the chance to have a child which is genetically their own but again, this will be many years away–at least a decade.”

The North East England Stem Cell Institute is a collaboration between Newcastle and Durham Universities, Newcastle NHS Foundation Trust and other partners.