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Functional sperm developed in vitro from primate embryonic stem cells

25 October 2021
Appeared in BioNews 1118

Stem cells from rhesus macaque monkeys have been used to make sperm in a lab.

The study, published as a preproof paper in Fertility and Sterility Science, is the first to demonstrate making functional sperm cells in vitro using primate embryonic stem cells. As global rates of male infertility rise, the researchers at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, have provided hope for future clinical therapies for infertility.

'This is a major breakthrough towards producing stem cell-based therapies to treat male infertility in cases where the men do not produce any viable stem cells,' noted lead researcher Dr Charles Easley, from the University of Georgia's College of Public Health.

Rhesus macaque embryonic stem cells were used to generate sperm cells in the earlier stages of development, lacking a head and tail for swimming, known as spermatids. The spermatids were capable of fertilising a rhesus macaque egg in vitro. Scientists have previously produced sperm-like cells using mouse stem cells (see BioNews 1112), but rhesus macaques are a more useful model for examining potential infertility therapies as they have a more similar reproductive mechanism to humans.

Sarah Norcross director of the Progress Educational Trust, the charity that publishes BioNews, said: 'This is a significant step in establishing whether sperm created in the lab could, one day, be used for human reproduction. We will be watching closely as the researchers carry out this work in macaques, first seeing whether eggs fertilised with this type of sperm can lead to a pregnancy, and then seeing whether a pregnancy can be achieved with sperm derived from skin cells. Even if all of these things are achieved in macaques, it will still take many years and much more research before such techniques are fit for use in human treatments.'

The research team plan to implant the embryos formed using in vitro spermatids into a surrogate rhesus macaque, to examine whether they can produce a healthy baby monkey. If successful, they intend to repeat the process using spermatid-like cells derived from macaque skin cells.

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