From the Data Lounge, http://www.datalounge.com/datalounge/news
January 5, 2001
TOKYO -- In a stunning genetics breakthrough that holds promise for would-be gay fathers, the London Times reports scientists in Japan have succeeded in growing sperm in a laboratory based on a modified cloning strategy.
The research team, hailing from the Machida district of Tokyo, say the technique will one day allow infertile men to "grow" sperm, but it was the gay angle that received the lion's share of coverage in the mainstream media.
The scientists say that in addition to helping infertile opposite-sex couples, the new technique will also spur the advent of female eggs produced from male cells. This would allow two gay men to produce offspring that would be genetically related to both.
This possibility of two gay men jointly fathering children was widely reported in the mainstream media.
(Editor's Note: It was unclear from the article if the procedure could be modified and used to create male sperm from female genetic donors.)
At the moment the technique, which clones embryo cells and turns them into sperm, has been attempted only with mice. But the researchers plan to test the techniques on adult men.
Cloning humans is banned under Japanese law, but the new technique gets around the restriction because it uses cloning to produce the seed for an embryo rather than the embryo itself.
In the early days of fertilization, the embryo is a mass of stem cells: cells which have yet to specialize and redivide into body cells (muscle, bone, skin, organs, etc.). Given its dependence on embryos, stem cell research is among the most morally troubling of any in genetics -- it is also considered the most medically fruitful.
The new technique was disclosed at a recent biologists' conference in Japan and will be unveiled to the international scientific community in a publication next year, but the broad outlines were explained to the newspaper.
Poshiaki Nose, of the Mitsubishi Kasei Institute, told The Times he first determined which stem cells in early embryos were destined to grow into the embryo's germ cells (either sperm or egg cells). Nose's technique involves using genetic markers to work out which cells have the genes involved in sperm manufacture "switched on."
Sperm cells grown in the laboratory by this technique appear genetically normal. "We have no reason to doubt that these sperm are viable," Nose said. "The stem cell-derived sperm are exactly the same as those produced by the testes and we are now seeing if we can make them fertilize normal eggs."
The same would be true of germ cells extracted for the purpose of creating eggs -- even from male donors. Joined with the "normal" sperm of a gay man, it is presumed the "male egg" would fertilize normally. The fertilized egg would obviously need to be implanted in a female womb, but the child born would have no genetic relation to its birth mother.
It ought to be noted that a similar technique, wherein a fertilized egg is implanted in a receptive female who bears no genetic relation to the child she carries, has been employed by infertile heterosexual couples. -- Editor
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