Science or science fiction: Egg stem cells can cure fertility?

| March 22, 2012 |
test_tube_baby

 

Science or science fiction: Egg stem cells can cure fertility?

 Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital, collaborating with a medical center in Japan, found that rare stem cells from the human ovaries of young women could produce human egg cells. The Harvard researchers used donated frozen ovaries from 20-year-olds and ‘fished out’ the purported stem cells. This discovery, if confirmed, could alter our perception of human reproduction with possible implications that include finding a solution to infertility and understanding the effects that drugs and nutrition have on a maturing egg. However, while the ability to understand the aforementioned effects may be in the near future, for now, the ability to fertilize a human with stem cells will remain science fiction. According to researchers, cells grown in labs can develop abnormalities, a problem that must be corrected before the egg is used for fertilization.

 Ethical questions are already being raised. Dr. Manny Alvarez, a member of the President’s advisory council on postpartum research, is lobbying against the potential commercialization of this technology, as it would encourage women going through menopause to look at this as another way of getting pregnant.  For many, he writes, this could create incredibly high-risk pregnancies, among other medical problems.

 The lead researcher, biologist Jonathan Tilly, is controversial in this field, as he has long challenged the accepted belief that a woman makes no new egg cells after she is born. In 2005, he reported that women possess a hidden reserve of cells in the bone marrow that constantly replenish the ovaries with new eggs. But other researchers have been unable to confirm these results—until now.

 In a separate study, scientists at Shanghai Jiao Tong University of China took mouse ovarian stem cells and injected them into the ovaries of mice that had previously been sterilized by chemotherapy. Voila! New eggs formed and the mice became pregnant and gave birth to perfectly healthy offspring. The next step would be to replicate these results, and then find out whether adult women also carry similar cells in their ovaries. If confirmed, this would go a long way toward confirming Tilly’s 2005 findings.

 Even if these cells have no role in adults, if they exist in humans and can be extracted, it would open the doors to growing large numbers of eggs in a dish to repopulate damaged or depleted ovaries, create embryos for childless couples or embryonic stem cell research.

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