Couples who rely on donated sperm or eggs to conceive may soon have a new option. Scientists in Spain have managed to turn human skin cells into germ cells, which can eventually be developed into sperm or eggs using a ‘gene reset’ procedure.
Despite the name, a germ cell has nothing to do with illness or infection. It’s actually an embryonic cell with the potential of developing into a gamete.
One of the researchers, Carlos Simon from the Valencian Infertility Institute, succinctly outlined the overall goal: “This is the problem we want to address: To be able to create gametes in people who do not have them.”
To accomplish this, the team added a “cocktail of genes” to skin cells, which turned into germ cells after about a month. While the germ cells could be developed into sperm, they wouldn’t have the ability to fertilize, because a further mutation phase is required to create a gamete, says Simon.
This need for further mutation is just one of the obstacles facing the research team. Strict legal regulations surrounding the creation of artificial embryos are also creating challenges. So all things considered, nothing is going to happen overnight, and much work (both scientifically and legally) will need to be done before true and lasting advancements can be made.
“With the human species we must do much more testing because we are talking about the birth of [a] child,” Simon explains. “We are talking about a long process.”
Still, we are making ground. Earlier this year, Chinese researchers used ‘test-tube’ sperm cells to fertilize mouse eggs, which resulted in healthy mouse offspring. However, human embryos are a bit more complex.
Would human children born using artificial sperm or eggs result in any sort of biological disadvantage? These questions have to be answered (and hopefully soon). Considering the emerging developments in the field, it may not be long until we have to rethink how to answer the age old question of “where do babies come from?”