This week, researchers working with mice reported in the journal Nature that they had successfully used stem cells to create oocytes (egg cells) for the first time. A similar approach could presumably be developed eventually for human oocytes.
The scientists, from Kyoto University, used induced pluripotent stem cells — cells derived from adult tissues that are similar to embryonic stem cells — to create the oocytes, which were then fertilized and developed into adult mice. (They also successfully performed the procedure starting with embryonic stem cells, although that approach would not likely be useful for human reproductive purposes, since embryonic stem cells, unlike induced pluripotent stem cells, would not allow IVF patients to create oocytes that would be genetically identical to their own natural sex cells.)
Techniques like this, allowing scientists to manipulate cells and tissues into the building blocks of life, are disquieting steps toward transforming reproduction into the manufacture of children. The artificial creation of human sex cells has many troubling implications for the future, not the least of which is the way it could facilitate the genetic engineering of human beings. But such techniques may also hold promise for ameliorating some of the ethically troubling practices now involved in assisted reproduction. Many infertile women today rely on donated eggs, which can only be collected by subjecting donors to dangerous hormone treatments. And as Jacqueline Merrill noted in a recent review in The New Atlantis, using donated eggs or sperm separates children from their genetic parents, the donors. Employing adult stem cells to treat infertility and avoid the use of donated eggs could actually be a way to restore the integrity of the family and of human reproduction.
Ensuring that technologies like this are used in ways that serve the human good rather than demean human dignity is a central task of bioethics, a task that calls for not just a clear understanding of the science but also public deliberation and, if necessary, regulation.
—Brendan Foht is assistant editor ofThe New Atlantis: A Journal of Technology and Society.