In 1924, an eccentric biological scientist called JBS Haldane predicted that over 70 percent of babies would be born from an artificial womb by 2074. He even came up with a name for the process: ectogenesis.
Well, it might sound a little Brave New World but thanks to research from a team of scientists at Kyoto University, Japan, that vision is one step closer to becoming a reality.
Biologist Mitinori Saitou and co-workers published a paper in Science explaining how exactly they were able to create immature human egg cells from human blood in what is thought to be a world first.
To do so, the team extracted cells from human blood and turned them into pluripotent stem cells, which have the invaluable ability to transform into any type of human cell. These were then inserted into miniature “artificial” ovaries made in the lab using mouse embryonic cells.
This is an essential first step to lab-made babies but there is still a long way to go, not to mention many ethical questions to consider.
For example, while it offers exciting opportunities for couples facing infertility problems as well as same-sex partners and mentally ill men who want to be women (all of whom obviously struggle to conceive in the traditional way), it also raises the question of how easy it could be to essentially steal someone’s DNA and make a baby without their knowledge or consent.
“There are some very weird possibilities emerging,” Dartmouth bioethicist Robert Green told NPR, referring to the idea that you could make babies from the cells of children, grandmothers, and even the dead.
“A woman might want to have George Clooney’s baby,” he added. “And his hairdresser could start selling his hair follicles online. So we suddenly could see many, many progeny of George Clooney without his consent.”
This is not something that should have Clooney shaking in his boots just yet, however. Saitou’s artificially produced eggs are far too immature to grow into a baby – or, indeed, be fertilized – and the technology is far from being consumer-ready. Next, the researchers hope to find a way to make eggs that are mature enough to be fertilized and look into ways of producing sperm in a similar fashion.
For years, scientists have been trying to make eggs and sperm from stem cells.
In 2012, Mitinori Saitou at Kyoto University and his colleagues reported they produced mature mouse eggs and sperm from stem cells, and used them to breed healthy mouse pups.
But scientists have been stymied in their attempts to get even close to those results for humans. “The field has been stalled for a number of years at this bottleneck,” Clark says.
But Saitou and his colleagues kept at it, and they described how they achieved success in their Science paper.
First, the scientists used a well-established method to turn adult human blood cells into induced pluripotent stem cells, which have the ability to become any cell in the body.
But the key, apparently, was putting the induced human pluripotent stem cells into miniature ovaries they created in the lab from mouse embryonic cells.
“They created a tiny little artificial ovary and inside that little reconstituted ovary were these very immature human egg cells. So the entire experiment happened entirely within an incubator within a laboratory,” Clark says.
In their paper, the Japanese scientists say the next step will be to try to make mature human eggs and produce human sperm this way.
“It’s the beginning of a paradigm change,” says Kyle Orwig, a professor in the department of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
In addition to helping infertile people, such a development could enable gay couples to have babies with sperm and eggs made from their own skin cells.
But such a possibility would also have much broader implications, say others following the field.
“If we can make human eggs and sperm from skin cells it opens up an enormous number of possibilities for changing how humans reproduce,” says Hank Greely, a bioethicist at Stanford who wrote The End of Sex and the Future of Reproduction.
For example, easy access to eggs might mean it would become routine to scan the DNA of embryos before anyone tries to have a baby.
“Doing genetic testing basically on a large chunk of every generation of babies before they even become fetuses — while they’re still embryos — and having parents and potentially governments pick and chose which embryos go on to become babies — that has lots of implications,” Greely says.
The abstract for the research summarizes the results as follows:
Human in vitro gametogenesis may transform reproductive medicine. Human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs) have been induced into primordial germ cell-like cells (hPGCLCs); however, further differentiation to a mature germ cell has not been achieved. Here, we show that hPGCLCs differentiate progressively into oogonia-like cells during a long-term in vitro culture (~four months) in xenogeneic reconstituted ovaries with mouse embryonic ovarian somatic cells. The hPGCLC-derived oogonia display hallmarks of epigenetic reprogramming, i.e., genome-wide DNA demethylation, imprint erasure, and extinguishment of aberrant DNA methylation in hPSCs, and acquire an immediate precursory state for meiotic recombination. Furthermore, the inactive X chromosome shows a progressive demethylation and reactivation, albeit partially. These findings establish the germline competence of hPSCs and provide a critical step toward human in vitro gametogenesis.
James E Windsor, Overpasses News Desk
October 3rd, 2018