ASHEVILLE, N.C. (BP) — Scientists in Japan are growing mice from skin cells.
A team of researchers at Kyushu University last year converted tail cells from adult female mice into viable eggs, and then inseminated those eggs to produce embryos. They implanted the embryos in female mice who gave birth to healthy baby mice.
The process, called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), is a big leap from today’s in vitro fertilization (IVF). With IVG, doctors can artificially create eggs and sperm by coaxing cells from other parts of the body into stem cells, and then into eggs and sperm.
Researchers say it is only a matter of time before they can use the process for human reproduction.
But experts warn of serious ethical, medical and legal consequences for using this new technology on humans. In a cautionary article published earlier this year in the journal Science Translational Medicine, a group of academics from Harvard and Brown universities noted the technology “promises to transform the fields of reproductive and regenerative medicine,” but also creates “vast ethical and social policy challenges” that must be addressed.
With IVG, creating life no longer would require a man and a woman: Two men could make a baby biologically related to them both using the skin cells of one to make an egg, and the sperm of the other. A woman could make a baby by herself using her cell-turned-sperm and her egg, almost like cloning. A group of three or four people could create a baby by creating two embryos, and then taking an egg from one and a sperm from the other, creating another embryo with multiple parents. Such scenarios inevitably would affect the traditional understanding of parenting.
The article also addressed the potential for “unauthorized” use of biomaterials: Someone retrieves a skin cell from a hotel room bed or bathroom, creating a baby biologically related to someone without their knowledge.
“Should the law criminalize such an action? If it takes place, should the law consider the source of the skin cells to be a legal parent to the child, or should it distinguish an individual’s genetic and legal parentage?” the authors wrote.
They also raised the potential for bioethical issues on a massive scale.
“IVG may raise the specter of ’embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,” wrote the authors, pointing to the inevitable destruction of large numbers of embryos, the commercialization of egg production, the creation of an “all but inexhaustible supply” of embryonic stem cells for research and the open invitation for a couple to create “designer babies” due to limitless eggs.
But significant scientific hurdles remain.
“People are a lot more complicated than mice,” Susan Solomon, chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, told The New York Times. “And we’ve often seen that the closer you get to something, the more obstacles you discover.”
Despite those hurdles, the article’s authors warn IVG technology is moving faster than our conversations about the ethical questions it raises.
“We have come to realize that scientific developments are outpacing our ability to think through them,” Eli Y. Adashi, a medical science professor at Brown, told The New York Times. “It’s a challenge for which we are not fully prepared.”