By Hilary White

October 29, 2009 ( – Researchers announced a scientific breakthrough yesterday in which the progenitor cells to human ova and sperm have been created out of embryonic stem cells. Pro-life commentators have responded to the news by highlighting the massive ethical pitfalls involved in the technology: not only does the process result in the death of embryos, but it potentially leaves both men and women, as well as natural sexual relations, out of the human reproductive picture.

The report, published in the journal Nature by Stanford University researchers, says that the primary aims of the researchers were to unlock the secrets of genetic malformation of ova and sperm by creating germ cells and eventually to treat infertility and genetic defects that are common in in vitro fertilisation treatments. In the experiments, embryonic stem cells taken from “spare” IVF embryos were treated with proteins to stimulate the growth of germ cells.

Germ cells are the progenitor cells of the gametes, ova and sperm, that combine in sexual reproduction to create an embryo. The report in Nature said that the research could be used to answer questions about genetic birth defects that start in the development of germ-cells and to “examine the unique developmental genetics of human germ-cell formation.”

The next phase, the report says, is to create the cells from human somatic or body cells, including possibly skin cells, bypassing the use of living embryos.

Rita Reijo Pera of Stanford's Centre for Human Embryonic Stem Cell Research and the senior author of the new study, said, “Figuring out the genetic 'recipe' needed to develop human germ cells in the laboratory will give us the tools we need to trace what's going wrong” for infertile couples.

But Anthony Ozimic, a bioethics expert and spokesman for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC), said that the new research, as with cloning, results in the death of human beings at the embryonic stage and is unjustifiable, even by secular ethics standards, because of the low success rate and the high risk of the creation of “defective embryos and birth defects.”

Further, he said, the creation of gametes for artificial reproduction, as with regular IVF, artificial insemination and the use of donor gametes, “distort and damage relations between family members.”

Embryonic stem cell research, said Ozimic, is a “scientific dead end.” The bottom line is that “human embryos – innocent, equal members of the human family – were killed to extract the embryonic stem cells used in the research.”

But even without this, the technique will lead to the creation of more embryos outside the human body “to be killed and abused.”

“The researchers are destroying life in a scientifically dubious quest to manufacture new lives,” Ozimic added.

Dr. Dianne Irving, a PhD in bioethics and former research scientist, told that in her opinion, the new report shows only that “science, the practice of medicine, and patient expectations have run dangerously amuck, and it's time that someone say so”.

“There is,” she said, “an inordinate degree of total moral bankruptcy connected to this ‘scientific inquiry’, as well as seriously misguided narcissism and selfishness involved, when both scientists/physicians and patients think they can justify doing absolutely anything in the lab or clinic in order to get what they want to appease their overblown egos.”

The announcement follows previous research at Newcastle upon Tyne University in the U.K., published in the New Scientist, that said similar work was being carried out in a “handful” of labs around the world. 

But the new report said that such cells created in previous research, “did not develop beyond the earliest stages” and were genetically damaged. The new technique, they said, has created germ cells that could differentiate into fully functioning ova or sperm and potentially be used in IVF treatments.

Reports in the media have said that the breakthrough is step towards creating ova and sperm for IVF treatments without harvesting them directly from donors. This leads to the possibility of procedures to enable homosexuals to have children created from their own cells without the use of donated ova or sperm.

The Daily Mail's Fiona Macrae wrote that the research “raises a number of moral and ethical concerns,” including “the possibility of children being born through entirely artificial means, and men and women being sidelined from the process of making babies.”

Read related coverage:

Men No Longer Needed?: Scientists Use Female Adult Stem Cells to Create “Female Sperm”


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