According to a recently published article in the Journal of Law and Biosciences, successful acquisition of reproductive cells in mice suggests in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) may one day be possible in humans. In plain English, this means that two same-sex partners could one day have the ability to have children biologically related to both of them. Though the article points out testing has only occurred in mice (and human testing is a long way off), the recent breakthrough is no doubt a groundbreaking achievement.
In the early 2000s, scientists began experimenting with methods of deriving gametes in vitro from mice. Early studies focused on extracting gametes from a mouse’s fetal gonads, but it was soon discovered these same cells could be obtained via embryonic stem cells (ESCs). As the process of extracting gametes from stem cells was refined, scientists were able to develop viable ways to perform IVG through induced pluripotent stem cells, essentially allowing them to bypass using embryos.
“One significant technical hurdle that researchers were able to overcome was the difficulty of obtaining both eggs and sperm from female and male mice,” writes article author Sonia M. Suter. “Given that females lack a Y chromosome… the process of producing sperm from females is more complicated than deriving oocytes from males. Yet scientists have been able to derive primitive sperm cells from female human ESCs.”
This discovery allowed for the successful production of a viable offspring using in vitro gametes from either a male or female mice. However, Suter acknowledges characteristics of the organism have yet to be discovered, meaning it’s impossible to accurately judge what might happen in the long-term to offspring produced through this method. With similar work on human cells at a temporary standstill, however, any advancement (even in mice) allows scientists to try alternate approaches to human IVG.
“Given that research on mice has yielded both sperm and oocytes, however, it is probably merely a matter of time before human oocytes can be derived in vitro,” Suter continues. “While mice are clearly not human, the research thus far suggests ‘substantial’ similarities between the two species and provides ‘strong reasons to expect that human IVG would also prove equally functional in terms of live offspring generation.'”
Assuming research advances to make it a viable reproductive option, just how would it work exactly? As one would sensibly reason, gay or straight participants would undergo slightly different methods. Concerning lesbian couples, doctors would first extract cells from one of the females to create a gamete of the opposite sex (i.e. sperm). After this occurs, doctors then merge this sperm with a typically created gamete (the other woman’s egg), which then creates an embryo. Straight couples who experience either infertility or other situation preventing reproduction could also make use of this method.
“For lesbian couples, one or the other would be able to have the embryo implanted in her uterus so she could carry the pregnancy to term, avoiding entirely the need to rely on individuals outside the relationship to assist in their reproduction,” Suter explains. “And for straight couples, where one or both cannot provide gametes, IVG would also allow them to reproduce without relying on gamete donation.”
For male couples, surrogacy would still be required to bring the embryo to term, with Suter saying “unless artificial wombs become a viable option.” Although relying on a suitable surrogate still exists, having the opportunity to bear a child sharing each parent’s biological signature is an incredibly profound breakthrough.
Great news of this nature surely wouldn’t come with some sort of a downside, however. Though extended research on mice shows the potential of such a procedure in humans, many believe successful IVG in humans to be decades away. Not only are there heaps of scientific hurdles the researchers would have to clear, but extensive analysis on an IVG-reproduced child could take years before it’s deemed biologically safe. As expected, this raises serious concerns among the scientific community.
“Creating a great egg is not just about the egg,” says founder and CEO of Celmatix Piraye Yurttas Beim to Mic. “Just because it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn’t mean it’s a duck. [IVG] is so interesting, but it’s also important to stay grounded in biological reality.”
Despite the bumpy road ahead and inevitable controversy, many believe that if it’s proven to be successful, the ethical concerns will go by the wayside. Still there will surely exist a wide range of people uneasy with people using IVG to create offspring. With decades of research and testing remaining before IVG sees the light of day, it remains to be seen whether this uneasiness fades or gets stronger.
However, Suter closes out her article with a quote which perhaps perfectly encapsulates what the general public’s idea of IVG should actually be, saying “in many contexts, IVG can be seen as just another way to make a baby.”