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Science Fiction Comes To Life

Scientists at Stanford University have embarked on a very interesting path in their research. They have discovered a way to use skin cells to create very primitive sperm cells. This research is preliminary, but in the future could help infertile men have children.

Published in Cell Reports, Renee Reijo Pera and her team reported their process and findings. Skin cells were taken from infertile men, had genes added to them, and were ultimately manipulated in Pera’s laboratory until they became pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells are very similar to embryonic stem cells and can theoretically become any cell in the body. The cells were inserted into the testes of mice where they became immature human sperm cells.

People are constantly contacting Pera seeking fertility help.

"I probably get 200 emails a year from people who are infertile, and very often the heading on the emails is: Can you help me?" says Ms. Pera.

In reference to her new research she said, “It's much easier than we actually expected.”

Although much further research is needed to determine if this process could, in fact, become healthy live sperm that could fertilize a human egg, initial results are intriguing.

A stem cell researcher at Harvard, George Daley, commented, “It's one step closer to being able to make sperm in a petri dish. So I think that's very provocative."

Ronald Green is a bioethicist at Dartmouth and is concerned this type of medical advancement could be misused. “It’s opening up a brave new world.” His thought is that if this process really works, it could give individuals the ability to steal other people’s cells…like from a person’s hair. This could then be used to create sperm without their permission or knowledge.

“So it is not impossible in the future that a movie star may find some of his hair follicles purloined and then on the market as donor sperm," Green says. "You can imagine some clandestine sperm bank saying, 'We're selling George Clooney's sperm.' "

In addition to the cell stealing and possible secret sperm production, posthumous reproduction could become possible. This could mean that “people who are dead or long dead — so long as there is a live tissue sample somewhere being preserved — could be the parents of children." Green believes this could seem appealing to the family of a man who may have died in a war or some similar tragedy.

Green urges people in society to take steps to prevent this type of reproduction. "I think we're going to have to craft a new human right. And that is the right to consent to being a parent. So I think we're going to have to put rules into place to make this an offense — a criminal offense."

While Pera admits that her seemingly science fiction research could be misused, she’s optimistic that it will not.

"With any technology there really is a worry about misuse. But there does seem to be a natural inclination in people to do the right thing. Most people want to have their own child. It's not that they want to have somebody else's child — even George Clooney's child, in my estimation."

Pera’s next step is to prove that her methods can create healthy viable sperm. Babies from skin cells? Sounds like science fiction to me.

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