by Jon Holmlund
Last week, the Washington Post reported that scientists in Japan have created human egg cells—oocytes—in the laboratory from reprogrammed blood “adult” stem cells. This work has been published in the journal Science (open access to the abstract only; subscription or purchase required for the full scientific article; WaPo has a limit on free articles before subscribing).
This is large. And, I think, troubling.
The skinny: research on human embryonic stem cells is, in my view and many others, ethically unacceptable because human embryos have to be destroyed to obtain them, and because the earliest cells are capable of maturing into full human beings (babies) under the right circumstances, meaning that said earliest cells are tiny human beings. But about 10 years ago, “reprogrammed” stem cells were produced in the laboratory by taking adult cells and treating them so that they take on a primitive state. In that state, they aren’t capable of forming an entire human but they can be induced to become almost any cell in the body. This gives them tremendous potential for research and possibly treating human disease—much of that potential essentially ethical if proper research ethics are observed.
However, commentators wiser and more knowledgeable than I have said in the past that, in principle, these “reprogrammed” cells, also called induced pluripotent stem cells, could be made into human germ cells—sperm or eggs. To my knowledge, that had not been done before now. Now it’s closer to being reality. The Japanese scientists created early egg cells, too immature to be fertilized, but that is the next project. Add to that the possibility of “reprogrammed” sperm.
This raises the possibility of in vitro fertilization of one of these “reprogrammed” eggs to create a full embryo which, as in current IVF, could be implanted into a woman to impregnate her and, ultimately, bring a baby to birth. Treatment for infertility? Sure. Need to harvest eggs from a would-be mother or an egg donor? Not necessary, in principle. Would the baby turn out OK? Not known—after all, these are not “natural” egg cells we’re talking about.
The development raises at least the issues previously raised by human cloning. Heretofore, cloning would proceed usually by taking an adult cell’s nucleus, inserting it into an egg cell that had its nucleus removed, and treating the resulting new “egg” to develop, not an easy task and one on which progress has been limited. Now, the “artificial egg” would be fertilized to create a new human—at least one step less removed from natural reproduction, on its face anyway.
If fully implemented, it would complete the move to babies-without-sex. Wesley Smith sees “mass human cloning.” That’s only the half of it. The WaPo article also pointed out these possibilities: babies from cheek smears; babies created from a person’s cells without that person’s awareness or consent; more routine screening for genetic disease; IVF becoming the norm. Add to that the notion that full-on IVF could some day be possible, with cells maintained in the lab as raw materials to be “reprogrammed” to sperm and eggs, eliminating the need for identified moms and dads.
This is all a ways off yet, but that’s how all these humanity-altering changes start. Smith is right, that for this and other technologies (heritable human gene editing, animal-human hybrids, totally artificial life forms like “SHEEFs”), a massive public discussion is needed. Where I think he errs is in looking to government to do it. This will have to be grass roots. And making that happen will be a new career for somebody, and a tough way to make a living. But the train has left the station and is gaining momentum.