Thursday, 10 November 2011

Stem cells – Friend or Foe?

Stem cells are basically human cells with the ability to divide, replicate and differentiate into other cell types. Find out more here .

Dream time film recently produced a video in collaboration with Welcome trust and the University of East Anglia about the future of artificial sperms. The films tells a story of a young scientist who takes cells from her own bone marrow and develops them into sperm cells which she subsequently fuses with her eggs. The result being the birth of her daughter.

This is not a review of the short film (which I find very interesting by the way and I’m sure you would too), but to share my thoughts on what came to mind after watching the video.  Click on the link to watch this video .

Stem cell research has made the news quite a few times. Some focussing on the scientific advancement made to date, others on the potential for medical applications.  Mostly stem cell research and their applications have made a lot of headlines primarily about the ethical concerns raised from the use of embryonic stem cells as supposed to adult stem cells. (Information about ethical legislations and discussions on stem cell research can be found here

Although there is now the possibility to manipulate adult stem cells to behave like embryonic stem cells (a process known as induced pluoripotent transduction) most scientists would agree with me that this is not quite the same as studying the potential of embryonic stem cells.  A basic difference being research into early development and the diseases associated with these early developmental stages. (Find out more about induced pluoripotent transduction at 

The use of embryonic stem cells therefore still remains the preferred choice. This really should not be much of an issue as these embryonic stem cells are obtained from the left - overs of in vitro fertilization which would otherwise be discarded anyway.    
As if the concerns over the use of embryonic stem cells were not chaotic enough though, imagine how much hostility would be born from allowing women to create their own sperm cells and men to create their own eggs.

As portrayed in the video, the child born from the fusion of an artificial sperm with a natural egg from the same donor passed away at 35. Her body was then subjected to further medical research. This young lady as it turns out had lived a perfectly normal life until her last days and had borne a child of her own from natural means. The scientist from whom it all begun upon the death of her daughter sought to seek solace for herself and mainly to protect her granddaughter from the lime light by fleeing elsewhere. This short film portrays a minute image of what the world would be for offspring’s conceived from such circumstances. 

In 1978 when the first test tube baby was born, I can only imagine how much media frenzy took place (I was not conceived then) and what Louise Brown and her family must have gone through. Despite how over joyed her parents were from her birth I’m sure there were moments when they wished to be left alone. As it turns out Louise Brown, the 1st test tube baby may have a permanent place in history but now has a perfectly normal life. IVF has since changed the lives of many for good.

Not a human case, but the same can be said about the world’s most famous sheep – dolly – who was cloned from an adult stem cell. Dolly lived for 6 years before passing on from lung disease.   

Scientists have already reported the birth of mice from a natural egg and an artificial sperm from the same donor and it is estimated that both eggs and sperms could be developed within 5 years.

The thought of developing artificial sperms from cells of an individual and fusing it with a natural egg from that same individual straight away spells out incest to me. This is naturally frowned upon because aside the moral issues surrounding incest there is an increased susceptibility to diseases such as haemophilia. One could argue that the zygote formed would be screened for genetic disorders. If that is the case how many zygotes would have to be discarded before finding the perfect match? A child conceived from this means cannot be shielded from the lime light. What life would they have growing up? Would they be subject to bullying at the school playground or deemed as cool? There is enough damage done to morality in society today to start encouraging young ladies and young men that it is ok to conceive with one’s self.

I’m sure my fellow scientists have every good intention regarding the way forward for this exciting new venture. The issue is not the development of artificial sperms or potential artificial eggs, because there is genuine room for this in cases of infertility. The issue is the thought of one mating with themselves for a child. I’m looking forward to the development of an artificial womb after this so men can go on to carry their own babies.  I guess a few hormone therapies and delivery by c-section should do the trick.  
Yes the creation of artificial gametes may be beneficial in situations of infertility but as one writer subtly asked “why are we creating artificial gametes (eggs and sperm) and aborting 200,000 babies a year when there are many, many couples willing to adopt?”

This leads me back to the question “Stem cells – Friend or Foe?” you decide…….

9th November 2011

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