Researchers have found that lab-grown sperm specimens can undergo a critical process that ensures the absence of harmful mutations that may be passed on to offspring.
Lab-grown sperm cells are on their way to catching up with actual sperm cells. [Image by Alamy]
Would it be possible to conceive perfectly normal human babies using lab-grown sperm and eggs? Nowadays, no. But who knows what the future holds? One thing that’s certain, however, is that scientists need to be extremely careful when it comes to the creation of artificial human sperm. There have been attempts to artificially produce sperm, like when scientists were able to produce viable mouse sperm by using stem cells. The sperm were then able to produce healthy pups. Producing human sperm, however, would take a lot more work and care.
“There are developmental timers in cells and so you have to let them develop according to their internal timing,” says Azim Surani of University of Cambridge’s Gurdon Institute. Surani explains the experiment he and his colleagues conducted in a talk he gave at the Progress Educational Trust annual conference.
Scientists have brought lab-grown sperm to the halfway point of their development.
There are scientists who aim to be able to use these lab-grown sperm to conceive children and find clues as to what causes infertility. For these things to happen, it’s absolutely essential for scientists to be able to replicate the exact process of development that sperm undergo inside the body. Any defects in the DNA, no matter how small, can be passed on not only to the children conceived but to future generations as well.
“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 says. “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.”
Surani and his team of researchers were able to make lab-grown sperm cells go through an important process called “erasure”. This process is what ensures the elimination of epigenetic DNA changes, which are changes caused by exposure to environmental factors, from undeveloped sperm and egg cells. Most of these epigenetic changes are wiped away from an egg cell a short while after fertilization occurs. However, the erasure that occurs when stem cells turn into sperm or egg cells is more thorough.
Will artificially made sperm be able to conceive offspring?
The erasure the occurs during sex cell formation can influence the health and behavior of offspring. This means that erasure minimizes the effects of the environmentally-influenced changes that parent DNA goes through on the children.
Documenting the development of the lab-grown sperm and their process of erasure entailed the creation and use of artificial testicles. These are basically an amalgamation of testicle cells in gel, creating the right environment for the growth of sperm cells. Thus, the experiment has shown that the process of erasure can occur naturally in a lab setting.
However, though this is a significant achievement, erasure is only just the halfway point on the development of immature sperm cells from human stem cells. Thus, the researchers are going to continue to observe the development of lab-grown sperm.
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