I try to keep one eye on scientific developments that, while still in early stages, promise to complicate parenthood even further. I wrote about one line of research in the fall. This research opens to door to creating gametes (that would eggs and sperm) from ordinary cells, or at least from non-gametes. This is an outgrowth of research aimed at creating new specialized cells generally.
As the earlier post makes clear (I hope) the idea of creating specialized cells has wide application. The example I used (taken from research) involved creating new retinal cells which would be useful for treatment for certain retinal disorders.
But the implications of the research for reproductive technology are apparent. (Perhaps I should make this even more distant and say “potential implications” as we’re not exactly there yet.) It’s for this reason I’ve been following stories about the research.
And now comes this. Perhaps the headline gives enough of a summary: Sperm cells created from female embryo.
It seems that at least one team of British scientists are focusing their efforts on creating sperm cells. They’ve used male bone marrow cells to do it and now they’ve used female embryonic stem cells. The next thing they want to try is using female bone marrow.
There are several important points to make here. First, bone marrow is a whole lot easier to come by than are embryonic stem cells. Most importantly (at least for the implications of the research here) a person cannot gain access to their own embryonic stem cells (unless perhaps there is frozen cord blood somewhere?), but can clearly gain access to their own bone marrow. Thus, being able to manipulate bone marrow cells to produce sperm is quite different from being able to manipulate embryonic stem cells. At the same time, the latter may well be a step on the road to the former.
Second, as I understand it (and I’m prepared to be told I’m wrong), one refers to bone marrow as ”male” or “female” because of the XY vs. XX chromosome thing. “Male bone marrow” would have a Y chromosome in there while “female bone marrow” would not. To make sperm you need a Y chromosome–this is what sperm contributes in the fertilization process. It seems to me fairly obvious that it must be much more difficult to produce sperm from female bone marrow than it is to produce it from male bone marrow–and indeed, some scientists in the article think this is impossible. At the very least, it must be a substantial hurdle. (By contrast, it would seem that creating eggs from male bone marrow would seem to be more straightforward, because male bone marrow does have an X chromosome.)
Third, the ultimate question is whether the newly generated sperm can be used to fertilize and egg and produce a new and healthy individual. That’s even further over the horizon.
But still, the caveats not withstanding, I think you have to think about where this will lead. Perhaps the problems are insoluable, but perhaps they are not. At the very least, some of what is discussed may come to pass in our lifetime–creating eggs from skin cells, say? (That’s related to the research discussed in that earlier post I linked to.)
I know for many people the ethical and moral questions raised here are staggering. I’d divide those questions into two groups–those about doing the research and those about employing the technology, should it become available. Those are related, of course. If it is unthinkable to employ the technology, then it would be wrong to do the research to develop it–or at least, that’s what I’d say.
But I in my view it isn’t employ the technology, though some things about that brave new world do trouble me. People go to extraordinary lengths now to have genetically related children. I may wish that they didn’t (remember, I think the genetic connection is over-valued) but they do and for the most part I’m not prepared to say that they should be categorically barred from doing so. Using your own skin cells or your own bone marrow in your own ART enterprise doesn’t seem qualitatively different to me, so I don’t quite see how to categorically bar that, either.
There are other questions, I know, about the research itself and I won’t discuss those here–partly because I do not know enough (there’s a whole field of scientific research ethics/morals that I’m only dimly familiar with), partly because of space/time limitations right now.
If this all pans out (and I realize that is really several very large ifs) then it means that any couple–same-sex or different sex–can combine their own cells to create their own gametes to then create a child. I suppose this means that any pair of people could become genetic parents to a child. And maybe for big fans of the primacy of genetics this looks like a good thing–no more third-party gametes, no more sperm/egg donors. Still, it is a strange new world we’re creeping towards.