Comment »Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 3:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Scientists at Newcastle University claim to have created human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time. Professor Karim Nayernia who led the team says their research could be used to study male infertility, but the tabloids drew slightly different conclusions.

Ethical storm flares as British scientists create artificial sperm from human stem cells‘ and ‘Are we on the brink of a society without any need for men?‘ – Daily Mail

The end of men? Scientists create sperm in the lab out of stem cells‘ – The Mirror

Chaps doomed as lab grows sperm‘ – The Sun

I can’t access the paper thus only have the press release to go on, but even without an in-depth look at the science I can safely say that these headlines are a bit alarmist.

Theoretically, these artificial sperm could be used to fertilise an egg and produce a viable embryo, though such a procedure is currently banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Laws do change however, and Professor Nayernia and his team have already used the technique to impregnate mice, though the resulting offspring died soon after birth due to abnormalities.

It’s still a huge leap to go from creating sperm to eliminating men all together. For one thing, surely half of all babies born through this method would be male? Even if this weren’t the case, the researchers were not able to produce viable sperm from female stem cells. It seems that men will need to stick around, if only for their Y chromosome.

Ultimately I think that the furthest this research will go is to generate artificial sperm from the stem cells of men who can’t produce their own. We’re not even close to that yet though, and many media reports mention rival scientists questioning whether the team at Newcastle have even created sperm at all. Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield and Secretary of the British Fertility Society told the Guardian:

“As a sperm biologist of 20 years’ experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells … produced by Professor Nayernia’s group can be accurately called ‘spermatozoa’”

Whilst it is important that we have a debate about the implications of this research and create legislation reflecting the realities of science, I don’t think these headlines can be taken seriously. A dose of common sense will tell you that the majority of couples will choose to conceive in the same way as they have always done, men included, and this new technique will just be another addition to the IVF toolkit.

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