Babies with two biological same-sex parents could be a reality in just two years.
Pioneering stem cell research undertaken at the University of Cambridge in the U.K. and Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel were able to create primordial germ cells (PCGs)—which go on to become eggs and sperm—using human embryonic stem cells. While the same process had previously been carried out among rodents, this is the first time it has been successfully trialed with human matter, which could be entirely transformative for the future of conception.
When fertilized by a sperm, an egg cell begins dividing into a cluster of cells (or a blastocyst), marking the early stage of the embryo. Some of these cells then form the inner cell mass—this is what develops into the fetus—while others collect to create the outer wall, which becomes the placenta. Stem cells, which can develop into any type of bodily cell, are created from those in the inner mass, and a small number of these then become PCGs. If these PCGs then become sperm and egg cells, these will be able to pass down genetic information to offspring created from this material.
It is hard to predict just how long it may take for PGCs to become fully fledged eggs or sperm, says Dr. Jacob Hanna, one of the study’s lead researchers, but he is confident that “this is going to be a very active area of research.”
“I am optimistic,” he adds. “We have succeeded in the first and most important step of the process, where we succeed in reaching the progenitor cell state for sperm and egg (though it is very important to emphasize that we have not achieved mature sperm and eggs). So we are now focusing on completing the second half of this process. Once that is achieved this may become useful for any individual with fertility problems.”
Though the research was not initially intended to serve as evidence of possible single-sex conception, the possibility of this as demonstrated by the findings has provided an unexpected leap forward for hopeful gay parents. Professor Azim Surani at Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute, who was also on the team behind the world’s first test tube baby in 1978, found that the S0X17 cell is key for “reprogramming” adult cells (in this case, into skin cells), which will enable further investigation into infertility and germlines. That 10 different donor sources could create new germline cells, and that these stem cells identically match those taken from aborted fetuses (a process used to check that the artificial and natural matter matches up) could revolutionize our notion of reproduction.
It isn’t just same-sex couples hoping for a baby genetically their own who would benefit from this process: People suffering from age-related diseases could, too. DNA picks up genetic mutations over time (known as epigenetic changes, caused by a person’s environment), but the cells that form eggs and sperm are able to get rid of these in the early stages, meaning that no damaged genetic material would be passed down if this process was used instead of natural conception. It could also greatly help those biologically unable to have children at all.
“It is probably a long way off, but it would be a way for people who have had treatment for conditions such as childhood leukaemia, which has left them infertile, to have children of their own,” Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem-cell biology and developmental genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, told The Sunday Times.
As with all IVF developments, though, concerns remain that the process will enable those who want a “designer baby” to take control of its genetic makeup for unethical reasons. “I am not in favor of creating engineered humans,” Dr. Hanna explains, “and the social and ethical implications…need to be thought through, but I am very confident it will work and will be very relevant to anyone who has lost their fertility through disease.”
While the risk of malpractice will always remain, this is surely a minor factor when considering the enormous potential such genetic discoveries have. Although Dr. Hanna’s predictions that such a process could materialize in two years seem extremely confident, this will undeniably be a breakthrough with the power to change an immeasurable number of lives.