It may be possible to treat male infertility through an unexpected technique. Researchers from Stanford successfully turned skin cells into stem cells and then into sperm cells. The study was published in the journal Cell Reports.
The researchers took skin samples from five men, three of them had azoospermia, a genetic mutation that prevents them from making mature sperm. The skin cells were manipulated in the lab to become pluripotent stem cells.
Pluripotent stem cells are similar to embryonic cells, which have the ability to differentiate into any other type of cell.
The manipulated cells were inserted into healthy mice testicles and the cells developed into immature sperm cells.
The study authors caution that success in animal studies does not translate into success in humans, as this research is just in the beginning stages.
Senior study author Renee Reijo Pera indicated that azoospermia only affects 1 percent of the population. However, secondary infertility due to cancer treatments affects far greater numbers of men, particularly if they occurred when the men were boys.
What the researchers have done "is very exciting and unexpected," said Pera as reported in Healthday news.
"We were able to take stem cells drawn from the skin of infertile men -- cells that can make any type of cell in the body -- and inject them right into the testes of mice where the sperm is usually formed.”
Pera said that they did not go all the way to producing actual sperm but she was optimistic that sperm could possibly be produced using a person’s own cells and own genetic information.
NPR reported the concern that this new technique, once perfected, could be misused. Bioethicist Ronald Green stated, “If this works someone could steal other people's cells — even from a hair — to make their sperm without their permission.”
"That's not all," Green said, “Posthumous reproduction could become a possibility."
People who have died could be reproduced if their tissue was kept alive, which could be the wish of parents who have lost sons in a war. Green feels there would need to be strict laws to prevent this from happening.