Doing Without Males
Chinese scientists claim they can create babies without men by injecting eggs with artificial sperm
Youtube / Cambridge University
By John von Radowitz
Ground-breaking: Scientists say they have created mouse babies using artificial sperm
Scientists have claimed they have found a way for women to have babies without men by creating artificial sperm. The team from China claim they have created healthy mouse babies by injecting laboratory-made sperm into eggs to produce mouse offspring.
The scientists claim their stem cell technique could pave the way for new treatments for male fertility. But British experts have called for the results to be independently verified and pointed out that any practical application is likely to be a long way off.
The mouse cells produced were technically "spermatids" - undeveloped sperm that lack tails and cannot swim.
Yet when they were injected into mouse eggs, mimicking a common IVF technique called Icsi (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), they delivered viable embryos and healthy, fertile babies.
In the UK, using spermatids in the same way to produce a pregnancy would be illegal.
Dr Jiahao Sha, from Nanjing Medical University, who co-led the research, published the results in the peer-reviewed journal Cell Stem Cell.
He said: "If proven to be safe and effective in humans, our platform could potentially generate fully functional sperm for artificial insemination or in-vitro fertilisation techniques.
"Because currently available treatments do not work for many couples, we hope that our approach could substantially improve success rates for male infertility."
The scientists began with stem cells taken from mouse embryos which were exposed to a carefully mixed cocktail of chemicals. This triggered their transformation into primordial germ cells, the first step on the developmental path to becoming sperm.
Next, the germ cells were exposed to testicular cells and testosterone in an attempt to mimic the natural environment of the testes. When the resulting spermatids were injected into mouse eggs, they proved capable of producing embryos that developed normally.
Scientists have previously taken early steps in the process of creating artificial sperm and eggs in the laboratory.
In 2011 a Japanese team produced mouse germ cells from stem cells which eventually developed into healthy viable sperm, but only after they were injected into the testicles of male mice.
Infertility affects around 15% of couples and can be traced to the man in about a third of cases.
A major cause of male infertility is the failure of pre-cursor cells in the testes to undergo a special type of cell division called meiosis.
Discovery: British scientists say the results need to be independently verified
In 2014 a team of distinguished reproductive biologists writing in the journal Cell proposed a set of "gold standard" criteria to prove that all the essential steps of meiosis have taken place in artificially created eggs or sperm.
They included showing evidence of correct DNA content in the cell nucleus at specific meiotic stages, normal chromosome number and organisation, and the ability of the engineered cells to produce viable offspring.
The Chinese team claims to have passed all these tests.
Dr Sha said: "Our method fully complies with the gold standards recently proposed by a consensus panel of reproductive biologists, so we think that it holds tremendous promise for treating male infertility."
Professor Richard Sharpe, from the Medical Research Council Centre for Reproductive Health at the University of Edinburgh, said safety was a major issue.
"Bear in mind that if germ cells do not format their DNA correctly, it may not only affect the resulting individual but might also affect the next generation," he pointed out.
Radical: Chinese scientists claim the discovery could provide hope for infertile men
Allan Pacey, Professor of Andrology at the University of Sheffield, said the study was an "interesting step forward".
But he added: "It's important to note that the sperm-like cells produced in the study were not fully mature sperm as we might know them. "
"In spite of these encouraging results, we are still some way from immediately applying this technique as a potential cure for human male infertility," he continued.
"It remains to be seen if this technique could be applied in humans to create sperm-like cells that might be usable in IVF."
Artificial Sperm...Men Not Needed
Children born using IVF could face serious health problems later in life, warns scientist
Embryo selection: Key stage in IVF - Getty
Dr Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist, believes the technology may be storing up serious trouble for ageing populations of IVF children
Dr Pascal Gagneux, an evolutionary biologist from the University of California at San Diego in the US, believes the technology may be storing up serious trouble for ageing populations of IVF children.
In vitro fertilisation is one of several techniques available to help people with fertility problems have a baby. During IVF, an egg is removed from the woman’s ovaries and fertilised with sperm in a laboratory.
The fertilised egg, called an embryo, is then returned to the woman’s womb to grow and develop. It can be carried out using your eggs and your partner’s sperm, or eggs and/or sperm from donors.
Of the estimated five million IVF offspring alive today, the oldest of them, British “test tube baby” Louise Brown, is only 37.
But Dr Gagneux fears there may be unintended and unwanted consequences of IVF that will emerge towards the end of life and that cannot be detected now.
“This technology has for less than forty years allowed couples who couldn’t conceive naturally to conceive, which is hopeful in a sense. It’s also weird because it is the first time that we have removed sex from reproduction.
“For years I’ve been interested in the possibility that when animals mate they produced from hundreds of millions to billions of sperm.
"But in IVF there is only one sperm that fertilises the egg so when everybody sees an egg with loads of sperm around it that is from a fertility clinic.
“In vivo, in the female, fertilisation happens in the tunnel of fallopian tube and it’s a tango. One egg, one sperm. Given the complexity of the female reproductive tract in mammals there might be something called female cryptic choice.
"So obviously when you use assisted reproductive you bypass that.”
He added: “The concern that by bypassing female choice at the level of sperm selection we might produce embryos which contain risk factors that you would otherwise not have.”
Speaking at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) annual meeting in Washington DC, he pointed out that scientists have already uncovered worrying signs.
Some mice born to IVF who have been allowed to age became ill. Females develop a pre-diabetic condition called metabolic syndrome, while male animals suffer hormonal problems.
More worrying was one study which involved taking 100 IVF and naturally conceived children aged as young as six 3,500 metres up a Swiss mountain, where low oxygen levels mimic effects of ageing.
Heart and artery malfunction was reported “very convincingly” in the assisted reproduction children, including those with brothers and sisters who were conceived naturally, said Dr Gagneux.
Speaking at the world’s biggest science conference in Washington DC, he said: “I’m an evolutionary biologist and interested in human origins. To me this is the epitome of a species taking its own fate into its own hands.
“We’re engaging in an evolutionary experiment. I would compare it to high fructose corn syrup and fast food in the US.
“It took 50 years; it was fantastic, you got bigger and healthier, and now the US are the first generation that are shorter and heavier and die younger. But it took 50 years.
“I think we can’t rule out that it could be shortening life span. It could also be introducing some very interesting costs in terms of metabolic syndrome.”
When nature is allowed to take its course, only a handful of sperm out of 100 million ever make it to the egg. Just one will fuse successfully with the egg and achieve the goal of fertilisation.
Dr Gagneux said: “What is interesting is that the force of natural selection is extremely strong early in life and becomes very weak late in life.
"The very reason why we age has to do with the fact that you can select for things that help you when you’re young and those very same things will kill you when you’re old.
“With increased life expectancy and maximum longevity we are setting the stage so that even a slight deviation from something highly adaptive might bite you in the butt quite badly when you’re 70,80, or 90.”
One of his biggest concerns was the way IVF embryos were bathed in a cocktail of chemicals for up to five days during the phase when genetic “imprinting” is taking place.
This is a process that switches on some genes, and switches off others, and it has effects that can be passed down generations.
He added: “It could also be introducing some very interesting costs if metabolic syndrome would be one of the potential consequences of starting an embryo out in ‘rocket fuel’, some minestrone mixture that lab people have developed.”
For more information about ivf therapies see http://nexusilluminati.blogspot.com/search/label/ivf
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