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'Mockumentary' provokes debate over same-sex reproduction

29 June 2009
Appeared in BioNews 514

A new Canadian film, 'The Baby Formula', has rekindled debate over the scientific possibility of women being able to one day produce children without the need for a man, using sperm derived from their own stem cells.

The film tells the fictional story of a lesbian couple who become pregnant using sperm created from each other's cells - and some scientists are claiming that the science needed to achieve this is not a million miles away.

Three years ago, Dr Karim Nayernia and his team at Newcastle University, UK, successfully harnessed the potential for stem cells to differentiate into any type of human cell by producing sperm generated from male embryonic stem cells (ES cells) . These sperm successfully fertilised female mice to produce offspring. One year later, the team created primitive human sperm using stem cells from the bone marrow of human males. Since then, the team have been working on generating sperm from female bone marrow. 'We are now publishing a paper describing the producing of human sperm in the laboratory' said Dr Nayernia, adding: 'It's male but we've had some success with female.'

Whilst the reasons for the research are cited as gaining better understanding of the genetics of stem cells, a safe means of researching the effects of drugs and toxins on stem cells, and a way to protect the fertility of men and women undergoing cancer treatments, Dr Nayernia believes the idea of sperm derived from female cells successfully fertilising another female's egg is 'scientifically, in principle, possible'.

Tim Caulfield, Professor of health science and law at the University of Alberta, US, says there are 'legitimate' scientific reasons for wanting to create human sperm and eggs from stem cells aside from same-sex reproduction. An unlimited source of eggs and sperm for study, the potential to assist infertile couples to have biologically related children and easier pre-implantation screening for genetic mutations such as Tay-Sachs disease are among these reasons.

However, Canadian stem cell biologist Andras Nagy is sceptical about overcoming the 'biological hurdles' necessary to produce so-called 'female sperm'. 'Without the Y chromosome, it's just simply not possible', he said, going on to explain that the presence of two X chromosome in female cells means that the production of sperm cells is effectively blocked.

The ethics of same-sex reproduction has also been called into question not least because of the fact that embryos would have to actually be created at some stage, and be allowed to develop to a certain stage to determine whether they contained abnormalities as a result of their method of conception. 'From a research ethics point of view, that's a major challenge' said Professor Caulfield, who believes that stem cell research is pushing the boundaries of what is biologically possible and, with it, bringing a host of ethical challenges society will have to face.

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