Could babies one day be made with skin cells?
As far-fetched as this idea seems, it’s a possibility that scientists are now exploring after they successfully produced healthy mice using a process called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). This is a revolutionary method involving embryonic stem cells that are reprogramed to become viable sex cells.
In the mice experiment, scientists made early stage mouse eggs from stem cells and grew them in the lab. Once the eggs matured, they fertilized them with mouse sperm and demonstrated that they could also be successfully implanted into a surrogate female mouse.
It’s important to note that the technology is still in its infancy. Creating eggs from skin cells is a possibility, but at this point, there is still some work to be done before it is truly viable in humans. The success of the mouse model, however, illustrates the opportunities that this technique could offer.
Obviously, IVG is revolutionary for the field of fertility medicine. It gives infertile people hope, especially those who are unable to have children because of cancer treatment. For example, collecting skin cells from patients undergoing chemotherapy means scientists can turn them into healthy eggs or sperm in case they become infertile as a result of treatment.
In short, the technique could render egg donors obsolete. For couples undergoing fertility treatments, they no longer have to choose from just a handful of viable embryos, they could potentially select from a bigger pool. It also makes the biological process of conceiving more democratic. Theoretically, the method can be used to produce egg cells from male skin cells, making it possible for a baby to be created from same-sex couples.
Perhaps as a testament to the promise of this technique, experts are already looking into IVG’s possible consequences this early into the study.
For instance, should the procedure eventually become accessible and inexpensive, we could face the possibility of ‘embryo farming,' which for some, puts a focus on how this method can devalue human life. Perceived advantages, like making it possible for parents to select from a bigger pool of embryos, also has obvious downsides—like high-tech enabled eugenics.
Combined with advances in gene editing technology, it raises ethical concerns regarding human enhancement and designer babies. And with IVG theoretically making it possible for a baby to have three or more genetic parents, it raises questions regarding the legal rights and responsibilities of each parent.
It’s difficult to predict when technology like this will be ready for use in humans. Right now, any efforts to replicate the same results in primates or humans has proved unsuccessful. But the study is steadily moving forward, and as the authors pointed out:
[...] With science and medicine hurtling forward at breakneck speed, the rapid transformation of reproductive and regenerative medicine may surprise us. Before the inevitable, society will be well advised to strike and maintain a vigorous public conversation on the ethical challenges of IVG.