Since Shinya Yamanaka reprogrammed first mouse and then human ordinary cells into powerful pluripotent stem cells, termed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, back in 2006-2007 many new research avenues have opened up. See my interview with Yamanaka on clinical use of iPS cells here.
The impossible suddenly seemed a lot more possible with the report of iPS cells (aka IPSC). People started asking many more creative questions, The biomedical sciences now had more potential to make the seemingly impossible become reality.
One question that has come up: could same sex couples have their own biological children?
There’s been a lot of hype on this question in the media in the last week including these headlines and stories:
- Biological Babies For Same-Sex Parents a Possibility After Stem Cell Breakthrough
- Breakthrough allowing same-sex couples to have their own biological children
- Same-Sex Couples May One Day Have Biological Children, Researchers Say
One article claimed that same sex parents could have their own biological offspring within 2 years. That’s just total baloney. However, in the long run within 1-2 decades this very well could be achieved. The excitement and over-exuberance in some cases with the media over this issue stems from recent work published in Cell from the labs of Drs. Azim Surani and Jacob Hanna on a more efficient way to produce human primordial germ cells (PGCs) via iPS cell-related methods.
Hanna was quoted thusly by Newsweek:
“This is very exciting biology,” says Dr Hanna. “We have succeeded in the first and most important step of the process, where we have reached the progenitor cell state for sperm and egg. We have not yet achieved mature sperm and eggs. So we are now focusing on completing the second half of this process.”
There’s no doubt that this is important work in this paper, but it’s a long, complicated road to get from the point A of the state of this research today to point B, where it could actually be used to produce human babies.
Still, what is so different now is that one can see a roadmap how to possibly get to that new reality.
Update: It’s also notable that Katsuhiko Hayashi and Mitinori Saitou have been able to produce living mice from stem cell-derived gametes (image above of method from one of their papers and another relevant paper to read; hat tip to Andrew Childs).
“It is probably a long way off, but it would be a way for people who have had treatment for conditions such as childhood leukaemia, which has left them infertile, to have children of their own,” Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem-cell biology and developmental genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, told The Sunday Times.”
I agree with Dr. Lovell-Badge on his view of this. Such technology could not only facilitate same sex couples have their own children (in the sense of genetically related to both parents), but also have a number of medical benefits such as tackling the general problem of infertility and more specifically allowing cancer patients who were treated with chemo to still have their own children later on in life as Dr. Lovell-Badge indicated.
There’s great potential here even as we should be careful to note a realistic timeline and the health of children produced this way could be an issue.
An additional cautionary note is needed as well related to cloning.
Unfortunately, there’s a ‘dual use issue’ here.
This same kind of technology, if applied by some rogue scientists, could be used to clone human beings as well. This kind of technology could lead to both sperm and egg production from a single individual, which when followed by IVF, could in principle produce a human clone. See diagram above of how this could work with an individual male to be cloned (from Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide). In theory this cloning method could work just as well with a woman too, but for male offspring somehow a Y chromosome would need to come into play.
Even if it wouldn’t be easy to get this cloning to work, it might well work with enough money and effort. There are people out there who really want to clone themselves or others too so the motivation is there.
I’m not trying to freak people out, but this possibility of cloning is very possible in coming decades. It’s probably well past time for reproductive human cloning to be formally banned in the US. We still should allow therapeutic cloning of human ES cell lines. Realistically, given national politics, can we hope that politicians would be able to ban one kind of human cloning (reproductive) and still allow the other (therapeutic) to be legal in the US? I don’t know. Probably not any time soon.
As I said at the beginning of this article, amazing new things are possible that once seemed only in the realm of sci-fi, but with the good will also come some complicated baggage.
Note: A version of this piece first appeared on www.ipscell.com.