Making babies without men

Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg
February 4, 2008 3:24:04 PM PST
Frozen sperm, frozen embryos, in vitro fertilization -- the fertility revolution keeps moving forward. Researchers say the next big thing in fertility is to grow sperm in the lab. It's already being done in mice, and it could be just around the corner for humans. Seven's On Call with Dr. Jay Adlersberg.

Stephen and Melissa James got their wish for a biological child when Katie, now three, was born.

"Now that I have a daughter, it's the most amazing thing in the world," Stephen said.

Katie was born through IVF. Stephen has what he calls a "sperm issue," resulting from a bad case of mumps at age 14.

"I luckily escaped with not zero sperm, but really low mobility and low count," he said.

Katie was born with their first try at IVF, but attempts at baby number two have failed.

"Katie talks about her imaginary brother and sisters all the time, so it would be nice for her to have somebody to grow up with," Melissa said.

In one-third of infertile couples, it's due to male infertility. Now, German researcher Wolfgang Engel wants to take the man out of the infertility equation.

"We are trying to generate sperm, artificial sperm, and we hope that we can help these couples," Dr. Engel said.

Dr. Engel is actually growing sperm in the lab. He's produced mice with sperm made from embryonic stem cells. But that won't give infertile men a biological tie to their children. Using embryonic stem cells would be no different than using donor sperm.

"They have great hope that they can get the child together," Dr. Engel said.

So now, he's growing sperm from very early cells -- called germ cells -- taken from a man's testicle. This too, was successful in mice. As for humans?

"If it works in the mouse, I'm sure it will also work in the human," Dr. Engel said.

Dr. Engel's next challenge is to grow sperm taken from a female germ cell, which could then be used to fertilize another woman's egg.

"It might be possible that in the future perhaps you are able to get a child from two women," Dr. Engel said.

But creating a baby from lab-grown sperm is raising eyebrows.

"If you are creating a human being as part of the experiment, then by definition you can't get consent from that human being," said Dr. Ken Goodman, an ethicist at the University of Miami in Florida.

Even if the research works in animals, Dr. Goodman says it will never be ethical in humans.

"The experimental process takes a long time," he said. "What do you do if the experiments are making babies and they don't come out right the first couple of times?"

But in its infancy, in vitro fertilization also had ethical arguments against it. Today, more than 100,000 babies have been born through IVF.

As long as it's safe, Stephen and Melissa welcome the research. Until then, they'll keep trying for baby number two with what now seems like the old-fashioned way -- IVF.

"It's a small price to pay for something as wonderful as a child," Stephen said.

Even if the ethical arguments against lab-grown sperm win out in the long run, the research will move forward. At the very least, says Dr. Engel, studying the way sperm cells grow in the lab could help with future treatments for male infertility.


Wolfgang Engel, M.D.
University of Göttingen

School of Medicine
Department of Human Genetics
Heinrich-Düker-Weg 12
D-37073 Göttingen

Phone: +49-551-39-7590