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New stem cell research may help fertility treatments

20 April 2009
Appeared in BioNews 504

New work in stem cell research has challenged the long-standing belief that women are born with all the eggs they will ever need. The results were published in the journal Nature Stem Cell, although the study was received with caution.

The scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University claim to have detected germline stem cells in the ovaries of old and young mice that produce eggs, or oocytes, and can be fertilised to produce healthy offspring. This goes against the dogma that female mammals are born with all their eggs, and that immature eggs ripen and are ovulated or die off until the supply runs out. Sperm are continuously produced in males from stem cells, but in females the number of eggs is fixed at birth.

Kang Zou and Ji Wu lead the research that isolated female germline stem cells (FGSCs) from the ovaries of adult mice and five-day old pups. They grew these cells into a colony in a culture dish and genetically modified them to produce a green fluorescent protein, a standard technique for labelling cells. They then replaced them into the ovaries of sterilised mice.

The mice produced new eggs which, when fertilised, gave rise to healthy, fertile babies, many of which contained the green fluorescent protein, indicating that they came from eggs from the FGSCs. The scientists say that 'these findings contribute to basic research into oogenesis and stem cell self-renewal, and open up new possibilities for use of FGSCs in biotechnology and medicine'.

If these findings can be replicated, they may hold major implications for fertility treatment for women made infertile by, for example, cancer treatments, or for women who wish to have children later in life. The work is controversial, however, since many experts doubt that the Chinese team have proved that the offspring actually came from the ovarian stem cells. Jonathan Tilly, of the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, made a similar claim about five years ago but others were unable to replicate his work.

Professor Robin Lovell-Badge from the National Institute of Medical Research, London, says that 'extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence', implying that the work was incomplete. He continues, however, that 'if true, and especially if applicable to humans, then this is very important. For example, it could provide a means to restore fertility to women who have few eggs or who have had to undergo cancer treatments, by isolating these cells, expanding their number in culture and keeping them frozen until needed for IVF'.

Evidence that mice produce egg cells after birth
The New York Times |  14 April 2009
Making new eggs in old mice
Nature |  11 April 2009
Stem cell discovery raises hopes of restoring female infertility
The Times |  13 April 2009
Stem cell study may raise prospect of new fertility treatment, say scientists
The Guardian |  12 April 2009
Stem cell treatment may allow women to delay menopause
The Independent |  13 April 2009
30 July 2012 - by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge 
Earlier this year, a paper claimed to have found cells, called ovarian stem cells, in the adult ovaries of both mice and humans. These cells could apparently be grown in large numbers in the lab and could retain the ability to give rise to eggs. A new study finds no evidence for the existence of germline progenitors able to produce eggs in postnatal ovaries. Is a lack of evidence sufficient to win the argument?...
12 March 2012 - by Professor Robin Lovell-Badge 
I am all for challenging dogma, but to do so requires robust evidence and carefully drawn conclusions. In the case of Professor Jonathan Tilly's much-trumpeted study on stem cells in ovaries that can give rise to eggs, I feel that both were missing...
27 February 2012 - by Antony Starza-Allen 
Scientists in the USA have shown it may be possible to isolate egg-producing stem cells from women's ovaries....
20 September 2010 - by Matthew Smart 
A new way to restore ovarian function in rats has been discovered, scientists say, which may lead to future treatments for women with premature ovarian failure (POF)...
16 June 2006 - by Dr Jess Buxton 
A new US study has cast serious doubt on controversial research that suggested bone marrow stem cells can produce new eggs in adult mice. Last year, a team based at Massachusetts General Hospital reported in the journal Cell that the eggs of mice rendered sterile could...
1 August 2005 - by BioNews 
Bone marrow stem cells can produce new eggs in adult mice, US researchers say. A team based at Massachusetts General Hospital has shown that the eggs of mice rendered sterile with a drug can regenerate within 24 hours, and that these germ cells originate from bone marrow. The findings, published...
8 May 2005 - by BioNews 
US researchers have managed to grow human eggs in the laboratory, using cells scraped from the surface of ovaries. The team, based at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, say that the findings could lead to a new way of preserving female fertility, and also a potential new source of egg...
5 July 2004 - by BioNews 
The ovaries of adult mice contain egg-generating germ cells, scientists revealed at the European Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology's annual conference. The results have prompted hopes of a treatment for women with few eggs, such as those treated for cancer or nearing menopause. The discovery had been published in...
15 March 2004 - by BioNews 
Mammals may continue to produce new eggs throughout their lives, a study carried out on mice suggests. The findings challenge the long-held belief that female humans, mice and other mammals are born with a finite supply of eggs, which lasts until the menopause. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts...
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