No matter how limited your sex ed in school was, you probably learned at least one thing: In order to create a baby, sperm must fertilize an egg. Currently, in order to obtain sperm, you need a source, whether that's a partner with a penis or some sort of donor.
Now, scientists are getting closer to mimicking the body's process for making artificial sperm using stem cells. This could be a big deal for men with fertility issues as well as a way for those with a uterus to bypass dealing with a man in order to get pregnant.
Dr. Azim Surani, director of germ line and epigenetics research at the University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute indicated at the Progress Educational Trust annual conference in London that his team is halfway through the process of creating sperm from human stem cells. Ultimately, the goal is to create human sperm and eggs using human stem cells, or potentially adult skin cells. This process had previously been successful in mice.
But as with any major potential breakthrough, it's best to proceed with caution.
“We can’t be absolutely sure that they are really sperm-like cells,” Surani told The Guardian. “There are developmental timers in cells and so you have to let them develop according to their internal timing.”
Another possible complication is the role of genetics. Because sperm contains genetic material, any flaws in the artificial variety could have lasting impacts on the resulting babies conceived using it, as well as their descendants. Creating artificial sperm in the lab may also help researchers understand the nuances of the specific components of gametes produced in the body — something that may assist with helping to better understand infertility.
“If this was ever going to be used in a clinical setting we have to be sure that it has gone through all the right stages — all of these steps are incredibly important,” Surani told The Guardian. “You can make an egg that looks like an egg, but it might not be the right cell in molecular detail. You could get a lot of problems with that. You don’t want something that’s going to grow into some kind of abnormal structure.”
In other words, even if it looks like sperm and swims like sperm, it doesn't necessarily mean the genetic material and instructions it contains will function the same way as naturally produced sperm, which promises to be a challenge for researchers working on this technology.
So, like any artificial component of reproduction, fine-tuning the finished sperm product will likely take a while; Surani predicts it will take at least 10 years. But if/when that does become a reality, access to artificial sperm and eggs could prove to be a major game-changer for people who want to have their own biological children but are unable to do so.