Reproductive Science Nears Artificial Sperm, Eggs

Worried about a holiday-season lag in humanity's scientific breakthroughs? If so, congratulations on having a very specific and socially-conscious worry, and take heart! At the Gurdon Institute at University of Cambridge, a team of scientists have created artificial sperm and egg cells from adult skin cells, taking a huge step in a promising new genetic frontier. And it could have implications far beyond reproductive science alone, with advancements in treating and curing aging-linked genetic diseases also considered a possibility.

The findings of the team's research (published earlier this week in the journal Cell) are by no means a final word, however. The form of cells they've been able to make aren't matured to where they could actually be used for fertilization — so far, they've only managed to produce them in primitive forms. Germ cells, according to CBS News, with the potential to grow into the sperm and egg cells that humans need for reproduction. This is a process that's been demonstrated to work before with non-human cells, with Japanese researchers actually producing baby mice in 2012, as detailed by The Guardian, but a successful experiment with human cells could herald exciting new discoveries and treatments.

While the process is now refined enough for adult skin cells can be used to produce these rudimentary reproductive cells, the team's first step made use of embryonic human stem cells, a field of study that's both proven very promising, and in some parts of the world, very controversial. After it worked with the embryonic cells, they were able to accomplish the same results via adult skin samples. And according to the leader of the research team, Dr. Azim Surani, the initial process actually took less time than you might think.

It’s remarkably fast. We can now take any embryonic stem cell line and once we have them in the proper conditions, we can make these primordial cells in five to six days.
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The broader implication in all this is that such a discovery could help combat a host of age-related diseases. Contrary to what one might assume, imagining that your DNA remains unchanged, from birth to death, changes do occur in our genetic codes over time. As The Guardian's Ian Sample explains, there are also myriad epigenetic environmental changes that can take place, mutations to the gene structure that have a non-genetic cause. Smoking, prolonged poor nutrition, or exposure to man-made chemicals, for example, can all produce these changes, which have been linked to diseases like cancer.

But by assessing a person's ostensibly "clean" new sperm and egg cells, scientists could possibly devise a way to restore the genes in living adults. Surani addressed this exciting possibility to The Guardian.

This could tell us how to erase these epigenetic mutations. Epigenetics is used to regulate gene expression, but in age-related diseases, these changes can be aberrant and misregulate genes.

Basically, this is big news for anybody who cares about medical advancement and the march of scientific achievement. It's not all settled and done with, not by a long shot, but it's got to be a fantastic way for Sumari and his team — Leehee Weinberger, Jacob Hanna, Walfred Tang, Naoko Irie, Toshihiro Kobayashi, Yair Manor, Sergey Viukov, and Sabine Dietmann — to end out the 2014 year. here's hoping they all get a well-deserved end-of-year break, and some well-deserved praise.

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