Earlier this year, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital were able to take donated reproductive stem cells and lead them to develop into human ovary stem cells with immature eggs. Popular Science reports the team "incubated" these eggs in mice and now they are looking to fertilize the more mature cells.
The Harvard University scientists working with a team for Edinburgh University in the U.K. are requesting a license to fertilize the eggs and bring the developing embryos to what is considered the legal limit to determine viability, at which point they would either be frozen or discarded. If viable, the researchers believe this could be the end of infertility and could also have larger implications, leading to the reversal of menopause in women. The Independent goes as far to call this a potential for producing an "elixir of youth" for women.
If fertilization is allowed to occur, the team's first goal is to prove that the stem cells they used to create eggs did in fact create viable eggs. The Independent reports Professor Richard Anderson of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, who is leading some of the clinical aspects of this research, as saying one of the best ways to test an "egg is an egg" is to attempt to form a viable embryo.
Here's the potential Professor Jonathan Tilly of Harvard sees for the research:
“This age-old belief that females are given a fixed 'bank account' of eggs at birth is incorrect,” Professor Tilly said.
“In fact ovaries in adulthood are probably more closely matched to testes in adulthood in their capacity to make new germ cells, which are the special cells that give rise to sperm and eggs,“ he said.
”Over the past 50 years, all the basic science, all the clinical work and all the clinical outcome was predicated on one simple belief, that is the oocyte pool, the early egg-cell pool in the ovaries was a fixed entity, and once those eggs were used up they cannot be renewed, replenished or replaced,“ he added.
Tilly's research earlier this year showed the theory of a a fixed amount of eggs was incorrect and that stem cells within the ovaries can be stimulated to produce more immature -- oocyte -- egg cells, which in turn can be led to develop into mature eggs.
While the team waits for approval from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority in the U.K. to fertilize the eggs, something they would hope to do later this year, Popular Science notes some of the more "frightening" scenarios that could result outside of helping with infertility and reversing some of the negative effects of menopause:
Stem cells turned into human egg cells, which could be fertilized to grow embryos, which would contain more stem cells, which could in turn be harvested .... and so on, as self-contained stem cell factories.
The interreligious blog First Things took it one step further explaining it could lead to human cloning:
elping older women have babies, whatever one might think of its propriety, is not what this technology is primarily about. Rather, mass egg production would open the door to assembly line human cloning experimentation. But they won’t say that because it could jeopardize public support.
Evelyn Telfer, a reproductive biologist at Edinburgh University, told the Independent the team has the "local ethical approval in place."