Could Stem Cells Hold the Key to Growing More Human Egg Cells?

she blinded me with science

The debate around stem cell research has revolved around some of the very same issues that the abortion debate hinges on, namely, where the line between potential for human life and actual human life lies, and what to do when potentiality is weighed against problems and pressures that affect current, non-potential human beings. So, in some ways this new development in the field of stem cell research is tinged with irony.

Stem Cells: they don’t just have the potential to cure numerous degenerative diseases and neurological injuries, they also might also make it easier to make more babies.

If you remember your Sex Ed class (if you had one that was any good, or if you had one at all, not a guarantee in many places, including all over the U.S.) you’ll remember that men make tons and tons of their gametes, or cells that merge to make embryos. The male gamete is sperm and after hitting puberty men start to produce it, and do so for the rest of their lives. Women, however, are born with all the gametes they’ll ever have already sitting in their ovaries. When we hit puberty, we start dispensing those ova until we run out. Then, it’s Menopause City. This is the oft-quoted-sitcom-phrase Biological Clock: if a lady wants to have children, she’s got to make time in her life, career, and relationships to do it before then.

Research done in mice in the last decade indicates that there may be a surprising caveat to all this, however. Scientists have found cells in female mice that might be persuaded to create new eggs, and now we’ve found similar cells in the tissue of human women as well. Discovery is on the case, however, with some sobering words:

We feel compelled to point out that this paper doesn’t mean that we will be able to grow fresh new eggs in Petri dishes, and it doesn’t prove that in real, live women these cells actually mature into eggs that can develop into offspring. It does, however, provide an interesting chance to see whether egg production by these cells can be jump-started using drugs…

This research is pretty exciting, but not for the reasons that some media outlets have been citing. It is unlikely that this finding will result in Petri dishes thronging with lab-grown eggs that women can then use to replenish their dwindling stores. Cells grown in the artificial environment of the lab for long periods of time tend to get a little strange: they accumulate mutations at a fast clip, which wouldn’t bode well for pregnancies resulting from such eggs.

What it might be useful for, however, is fertility treatments on pre-menopausal women. For example, those whose ability to reproduce has been damaged by chemotherapy. The right chemicals might induce these stem cells to make more eggs, so that a simple pill or series of treatments could get them started and provide some fresh ova. The next step is for researchers to, under the UK’s stem cell regulatory laws, see if they can get any of the proto-ova they’ve grown to make it to full blown egg stage, and then see if they can be fertilized. Injecting lab grown cells into an actual woman is probably beyond what would be considered good ethics, but Discover says that enough indirect evidence for the technique’s success might drive other venues of research.

For more science on the subject, see Discovery’s whole article here.

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Susana Polo thought she'd get her Creative Writing degree from Oberlin, work a crap job, and fake it until she made it into comics. Instead she stumbled into a great job: founding and running this very website (she's Editor at Large now, very fancy). She's spoken at events like Geek Girl Con, New York Comic Con, and Comic Book City Con, wants to get a Batwoman tattoo and write a graphic novel, and one of her canine teeth is in backwards.