It won’t happen for some time, but males may no longer be needed to produce babies because of technology for creating artificial sperm from somatic cells of women or men.
The possibility of such new fertility options through artificial sperm cells was raised in the latest issue of the free online Rambam Maimonides Medical Journal, produced at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center.
In the production of artificial spermatozoa, genetically related sperm cells are developed from cells that are not essentially germ (gamete or sex) cells. The process is performed in the lab rather than in the testes.
With artificial sperm, a single woman could use these spermatozoa to fertilize her own eggs. Same-sex female couples could produce offspring that carry the genetic information of both female partners.
Dr. Valentin Shabataev of the hospital’s urology department and Dr. Raanan Tal of the neuro-urology unit explained in their journal article that azoospermia – the absence of any sperm cells in ejaculated semen – poses a real challenge to the male fertility specialist. While donor sperm, embryo donation and adoption can produce babies for infertile couples when the male lacks sperm, most would-be parents still want genetically related offspring.
In cases of complete absence of sperm cells in the ejaculate, surgical options exist for retrieval of cells from the testicles. While advances in urology, gynecology and fertility lab technologies allow surgical sperm retrieval from azoospermic men for the fertilization of ova in many cases, it does not work for all couples.
“At present, there are extensive research efforts in several directions.
While these new horizons are exciting, there are significant obstacles that must be overcome before such innovative solutions can be offered to azoospermic couples,” the doctors wrote.
“These research efforts will ripen in the foreseeable future, resulting in the ability to create artificial sperm cells and provide such couples with offthe- shelf solutions and fulfilling their desire to parent genetically related healthy babies,” they predicted.
Based on current knowledge and ongoing research, the authors continued, there are several possible future directions to overcoming azoospermia and providing azoospermic men with artificial sperm cells. Those cells would carry a man’s own genetic information and could eventually be used to enable him to have genetically related offspring.
One of the major obstacles in producing artificial gametes in general, and sperm cells in particular, is the haploid nature of sperm cells. That is, cells containing half the number of autosomal chromosomes and only one sex chromosome. Creating haploid cells mandates strict division of the DNA content of precursor diploid cells.
The first and possibly most extensively studied option is the use of stem cells – undifferentiated cells with a differentiation potential that may possibly be directed to form gametes in general, and specifically, artificial sperm cells. Another option is for the cells to undergo cell division to become haploid.
At present, the urologists, concluded, genetically related artificial sperm cannot yet be used in humans to achieve pregnancy and the live birth of genetically related offspring. But as significant steps have been made to manipulate cells, this could eventually become feasible.