|Tuesday, 10 July, 2001, 12:25 GMT 13:25 UK
How To Get Pregnant Without Sperm? Scientists in Australia have found a way to fertilize eggs using genetic material from any cell in the body - and not just sperm.
Scientists in Australia have found a way to fertilize eggs using genetic material from any cell in the body - and not just sperm.
The technique could potentially help infertile couples to have children.
Theoretically, it also could mean that lesbian couples could give birth to a baby girl without the need for a father. Women do not carry the genetic information required to make a boy.
The technique has been developed by Dr Orly Lacham-Kaplan, from Monash University in Melbourne.
She told the BBC that her team had been able to successfully fertilize mice eggs in lab cultures using other cells in the body known as somatic cells.
Until now this has not been possible because somatic cells contain two sets of chromosomes, while sperm cells only contain one set.
The Monash team used chemical techniques to get rid of the spare set of chromosomes.
To do this they mimicked the process that takes place during normal fertilization when two sets of chromosomes in an egg are separated and one is ejected, leaving the remaining set to combine with the single set from the sperm.
However, they will not know if the embryos were viable until they were transferred to foster mothers for further development.
"We will then have to wait to see if any live and healthy babies are born following those transfers.
"Within the next six to eight months I believe we will have the answer, and see whether this technology can go further and be used maybe in clinical aspects."
Dr Lacham-Kaplan said she had started her work to help men who were unable to have children because they had no sperm, or germ cells with the potential to become sperm.
But she added: "Theoretically, we can use somatic cells from a female to produce the same embryo.
"So two women who wish to have their own biological children would be able maybe to use this technology to achieve that aim."
However, this could prove problematical as aspects of development are controlled by a paternal gene.
Fertility expert Professor Robert Winston told the BBC: "This is actually genuinely revolutionary and potentially very important.
"The real advantage of this technique is for men who cannot produce sperm. Hitherto it has always been said they could clone themselves.
"The beauty of this technique is that it makes cloning completely unnecessary. This actually is a much better technique and ethically much more acceptable because you have chromosomes from two partners."
Professor Winston said it was theoretically possible for a person to reproduce themselves using the technique.
However, the use of chromosomes from the same person massively increased the risk that a baby would suffer from genetic defects.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) was outraged by the technique.
A spokesman said: "The proliferation of novel ways to produce embryos is increasingly reducing the human being to a commodity in many people's eyes.
"We believe the interests of the child come before the wishes of anyone else, including the parents. We shall be calling for a moratorium on this kind of development."
Tuesday July 10, 2001 5:19 AM ET
Australian Research Fertilizes Eggs Without Sperm
By Marie McInerney
ADELAIDE (Reuter) - Australian researchers said on Tuesday they may have found a way to fertilize an egg with cells from any parts of the body, rather than sperm, in a new study which offers hope to infertile men and even lesbian couples.
Australian infertility scientist Orly Lacham-Kaplan said early research on mice could produce a breakthrough for many men who have no sperm or sperm-making cells.
``This is the group for which this kind of technique probably will be very helpful,'' she said. ``A lot of (these) people would like to father their own biological children.''
Lacham-Kaplan said the research, if successful in humans, also theoretically could allow babies to be born without any input from men, although she admitted that such an outcome could open up an ethical can of worms.
``If, as a technology, it would be used as a treatment for infertile couples then I would accept it very well,'' she told Reuter in a telephone interview.
``However I think we need to draw the line where it is used, and I believe a lot of ethical groups would draw the line.''
Lacham-Kaplan's research unit at the Monash University's Institute of Reproduction and Development in Melbourne has so far been able to fertilize mice eggs with somatic cells from the non-reproductive parts of the animals' bodies.
The process has effectively ``mimicked'' fertilization with sperm, allowing the team to grow embryos in laboratory cultures.
The next critical test in the study is to transfer hundreds of those embryos into surrogate mice mothers, to see if they can live and flourish.
``Then we have a long process of testing those pups, (to see) whether they will be born, whether they are normal, whether they are capable of reproducing, and if the offspring from those pups will be normal as well,'' she said.
``If we get live, healthy babies out of those embryos, then we'll say 'yes' this is a possibility of fertilizing an egg with a somatic cell,'' she said.
The mice experiments were expected to take up to a year.
If they are successful -- and Lacham-Kaplan admits to some doubts -- then it will be possible to experiment on humans, although where such trials could take place would be limited.
Australia, like many other countries, has banned all experiments involving somatic cell transfer into human eggs, but the United States could be an option, she said.
``At the moment I feel there will be more problems than success, but if it is a success, it will be quite a good surprise,'' she said. ``It would be an incredible breakthrough.''