Researchers from Cambridge University and Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science are claiming a stem cell research breakthrough that would allow a baby to be created from the skin cells from two adults, no matter their gender. This potentially allows for infertile couples to have their own children without resorting to sperm or egg donors, and may provide the means for same sex couples to produce their own babies.
Previously only successful in experiments on mice, the new research has been conducted on human cells for the first time. In this study, the researchers paired stem cell lines from embryos with the skin of a range of different adults, with the resultant cells compared to aborted fetuses to determine an identical match.
Techniques devised to create same-sex offspring are not new. Some experiments involve the manipulation of fibroblasts in mice resulting in offspring with the genetic traits of multiple male mice, whilst others have used bone marrow stem cells extracted from males to trigger spermatogonia.
However, in this latest research, stem cells and adult human skin have been combined for the first time to create an entire new germ-cell line (that is, cells that will become embryos). Derived from ten different donor sources, the new germ-cell lines were created from 10 different donor sources – five embryos and five adults.
Intrinsic to this pairing was the SOX17 gene. A master gene, SOX17 usually works to direct stem cells to be “programmed” to become whatever organs or body parts are required – in other research this techniques has been used to create lung, gut, and pancreas cells.
The manipulation of the gene to be part of a primordial germ cell specification (that is, direct it to create cells that will become an entire human), however, is a new development pioneered by the team and has allowed them to follow this discovery with actually making primordial germ cells in the lab. This stage in a baby’s development is known as "specification", and once primordial germ cells become specified, they continue to develop inexorably toward precursor sperm or ova cells.
Creating human egg and sperm cells from the skin of two adults of the same gender immediately raises the possibility of same sex couples procreating and offering an alternate pregnancy path for infertile couples. Of course, it also opens the door to a new minefield of ethical and moral implications, but the researchers note that many people may potentially benefit from the technique.
The results of the research were published in the online journal Cell.