Human eggs and sperm derived from embryonic stem cells (ES cells) could become a reality in the next five to ten years, says Professor Harry Moore, of the UK's Sheffield University. Other scientists think it could be even sooner, according to a report in the Observer newspaper. The issues arising from 'artificial gametes' need addressing now, according to ethicist Anna Smajdor of Imperial College, London. Ms Smajdor will be speaking on this topic tomorrow at the annual conference of Progress Educational Trust, the UK's assisted reproduction and human genetics educational charity.
Earlier this year, Behrouz Aflatoonian, a member of the Sheffield University team, told the annual conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology (ESHRE) that human ES cells can develop into 'primordial germ cells' (PGCs) - the cells that eventually become eggs or sperm. The research built on earlier work by US scientists, who managed to derive mouse eggs from ES cells, and that of a Japanese team who produced mouse sperm in a similar way. The work suggests that mature eggs and sperm could eventually be produced in the laboratory and used to treat infertility, and could potentially allow same sex couples and post-menopausal women to have genetically-related children. Such cells could also be used in 'therapeutic cloning' research, in place of donated eggs.
According to Smajdor, the UK government has so far failed to address all the possibilities this technology opens up. 'There are no existing governmental insights or guidance as to how ethical issues related to these areas might be approached. It is something we need to address', she said. Professor Moore says that it will be 'at least five to ten years' before human eggs and sperm can be produced using ES cells. 'We can make immature sperm and egg cells in this way, but so far have not been able to turn them into mature egg and sperm', he told the Observer, adding 'we have to demonstrate the technique is safe, and that takes time'. However, US scientist Dr Peter Nagy disagrees. 'This is a dramatic idea but the basic technology is not new', he told the newspaper, adding 'I think we will be using it within two to four years'.
Professor Moore says that it would be possible to use the technology to make eggs from stem cells created from a man's skin cells, allowing gay couples to have children genetically related to both men. However, Moore says 'this is not what the technology is being developed for. It is being attempted as a way to alleviate infertility which is still a cause of considerable unhappiness for many couples'. Josephine Quintavalle, of the pro-life pressure group Comment on Reproductive Ethics, said she would not support anything that paved the way for women past the menopause or gay men to have children. 'We need to have respect for nature', she said. Moore pointed to the 'huge outcry' when in vitro fertilisation was first used, and scientists were accused of playing God. But, he said 'it has brought immense happiness for parents who could not have had children otherwise'.
The Department of Health (DH) is seeking views on artificial gametes, as part of its current review of the HFE Act. The public are invited to respond formally to the DH.