Edging Closer to Grow-Your-Own Gametes

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.

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4 responses to “Edging Closer to Grow-Your-Own Gametes

  1. It would certainly reduce the demand for donor sperm and eggs, but there would still be single people who want a child, or people who wish to avoid passing on a genetic issue that isn’t yet curable.

  2. Medical experimentation on humans and frankly animals should be limited to subjects that willingly consent to take the risk for the potential benefit of treatment. When we force people or animals to be the subject of experimentation we are crossing an ethical line. We should never gamble with someone else’s chips. It’s not fair to say that were it not for the risk they would not be alive. So often donor offspring are told to stop complaining that their father or mother abandoned them because if it were not for donor conception they would not be alive. It’s not lik. telling someone that we had to cut off their leg to save them from a burning car – they did not have to be abandoned to be born, that was a personal choice the parent made – and oddly agreed upon but it most certainly was not necessary. The parents could have behaved responsibly one the child was born and they could have cooperated in rearing the child with their respective partners without compromising the identity or records of the child but they chose not to – chose to get what they wanted at the expense of someone incapable of consent or even cogent thought. When we talk about reproductive experimentation it should really be limited to research on the bodies of already living individuals so that their bodies can function normally, manufacturing reproductive cells is different than clearing a blockage in someones tube for instance. We don’t know what condition the resulting human will be in when they are born or what physical problems they might have to endure

    • I’m going to set the animal testing part of this aside–obviously a big field of questions and rather beyond the ordinary scope here. But surely it is true about experimenting with humans. I think there is every reason to assume that the people who provided the cells here gave informed consent. I guess I do not know but I’ll certainly agree that they should. So let’s assume that someone agrees to have their bone marrow or their skin cells used.

      Then there is the question of what the research is for. The general techniques they are working on clearly do lead to some significant medical treatments. I wrote earlier about the efforts to produce retinal cells to treat some degenerative retinal diseases. That would pretty obviously be treatment.

      I also think many people would agree that if a man could not produce sperm that a process to allow him to do so ought to count as a medical treatment. Perhaps not everyone would go this step, but I think it’s probably pretty widely accepted. But after that you do get into all the questions about when inability to procreate is somehow a medical condition warranting treatment and when not. so a woman cannot produce sperm (pretty obviously) but you might say there’s nothing wrong with her and thus enabling her to produce sperm isn’t treatment in the same way enabling a man to produce sperm is. Obviously many issues will arise here. And perhaps the main point I meant to make here is that I think it quite likely we WILL need to face these issues. What I mean is that the technology will come along and we will have to figure out what to do with it.

      But you are also raising (or perhaps primarily raising?) a different issue–an issue about the rights of the as-yet-non-existent children. (By the way, this really has little to do with donor offspring and in fact, might lead to their being far fewer donor offspring, fwiw.) This, I think, is a tricky question that is somewhat different. You can ask the existing people for permission but you cannot ask the as-yet-non-existent children. I’m not sure what to make of this and have to think about it. You talk about gambling with someone else’s chips. Suppose a different sex couple know that given their genetic make-ups there is a 1/10 chance that a child they conceive will have a heritable disease or defect. Is it wrong for them to use their own genetic material, via sex, to conceive a child? They are gambling.

      It’s not that I see what the answer is, but rather than I think the question you pose has very broad ramifications that run far beyond what is at issue here. I find myself wondering where it leads. Does it mean that it is never appropriate to screen embryos being used for IVF or does it mean that you MUST screen the embryos?

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