We’ve all heard of in vitro fertilization (IVF), a procedure which has helped countless women conceive through fertilizing egg cells outside their body. Last year a paper published in October broke new grounds in this area with in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), a technique that enables the production of sperm and egg cells from cells that resemble neither. Specifically, it talked about creating them from mouse skin cells.
Advancing technologies have permitted the reprogramming of adult cells to form induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) that are then grown into functioning sex cells. Japanese scientists have since used these newly generated cells to engineer the birth of a baby mouse.
Although revolutionary, these findings have been met with much criticism and many scientists fear that such advances could have monumental consequences. Recently Harvard published a paper discussing the theoretical implications of IVG use. If the procedure were ever to become simple and inexpensive, there are fears that fertility clinics could manufacture almost limitless supplies of sperm, eggs and embryos, raising the spectre of ‘embryo farming’ to an unimagined scale. This abundance could also dramatically broaden the choice of embryo selection and although in many ways this could be beneficial for treating genetic diseases, it could also have negative ethical implications regarding designer babies.
Despite these concerns, IVG could radically change our treatment of infertility particularly for those who are unable to have children following cancer treatment. Chemotherapy destroys reproductive cells, preventing these individuals from conceiving naturally. This new technology could replace lost gametes and provide hope in such cases. It could also radicalize the way we perform IVF by removing our requirement for egg donors and replacing the standard hormonal stimulation that is needed for the production of eggs.
These new findings highlight how rapidly our understanding of physiological processes is occurring and how quickly fundamental research can lead to novel applications in healthcare, meanwhile emphasizing that we should retain an air of caution alongside all that excitement.