Fertility breakthrough

Scientists create test-tube sperm

Breakthrough offers hope of finding cure for male infertility

Scientists have created human sperm in the laboratory for the first time. The extraordinary development, which until a few years ago belonged in the realms of science fiction, raises hopes that infertile men may one day be able to father their own biological children.

The sperm were created in a test tube, from stem cells derived from a five-day-old male embryo. The advance raises ethical questions over the safety of the procedure and the threat it poses to the future role of men. It was also challenged by experts who claimed the sperm-like cells produced in the experiment were not genuine sperm.

If the finding is confirmed, a single male embryo could, in theory, yield a stem-cell line which when stored could provide an unlimited supply of sperm. Once the stem-cell line was established, there would be no further reproductive need for men. In a briefing on the research, the scientists at Newcastle University and the NorthEast England Stem Cell Institute, led by Professor Karim Nayernia, raise the question of whether their discovery means "the end of men".

They point out that the stem cells from which the sperm were made could only be derived from a male embryo – one containing a Y (male) chromosome – so at least one male would be required.

"However, researchers believe that the issue does need to be debated and legislated for," they said. "As work progresses and results improve at Newcastle and elsewhere it may, in theory, be possible to develop sperm from embryonic stem cell lines which have been stored."

Professor Nayernia said:"In theory it would be possible [to dispense with men], but only if you want to produce a population all the same size and shape [because they have the same male genetic origin]. Personally I cannot see human reproduction as purely a biological process. It has human, emotional, psychological, social and ethical aspects, too. We are doing this research to help infertile men, not to replace a reproductive procedure."

The breakthrough was achieved using stem cells derived from a human embryo which were first developed into germ line stem cells – with half the number of chromosomes – and then prompted to produce sperm which were "fully mature and functional", despite being made in a petri dish rather than the testes of a sexually mature man. The results are reported in the journal Stem Cells and Development.

In a parallel but incomplete experiment, the same group of researchers are creating stem cells out of skin cells from which they have produced sperm, with the same genetic make-up as the skin cells from which they are derived.This would allow infertile men to produce their own biological children, using only their skin cells. Professor Nayernia said the results of this research were "promising" and added: "We hope in a few months to publish that work as well."

However, efforts to produce sperm from female stem cells failed. It had been thought the technique might allow lesbian couples to have their own biological children but the researchers say the genes on the Y (male) chromosome are essential to sperm maturation.

Three years ago, Professor Nayernia led scientists at the University of Gottingen in Germany who became the first to produce viable sperm from mouse embryonic stem cells which were used to produce seven live offspring. However, the baby mice died shortly after birth.

The latest discovery is a further step on the way to finding a cure for male infertility. Under current legislation, researchers are banned from using sperm (or eggs) produced in the laboratory – known as in-vitro derived (IVD) sperm – to treat patients. But it is permitted for research purposes.

"Sperm production takes 15 years in a human and there are thousands of factors that could affect it," said Professor Nayernia. "We can investigate these factors in the laboratory in a matter of months with this technique."

Experts yesterday challenged the Newcastle researchers' claims to have created genuine sperm.

Dr Allan Pacey, senior lecturer in andrology at the University of Sheffield, said: "As a sperm biologist of 20 years' experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells produced ... can be accurately called 'Spermatozoa'."

Azim Surani, a professor of physiology and reproduction at the University of Cambridge, said: "These sperm-like cells made in a dish from embryonic stem cells are a long way from being authentic sperm cells." Professor Robin Lovell Badge, from the National Institute for Medical Research, echoed the academic criticisms, but said: "Despite these drawbacks, it may be that the authors have made some progress in obtaining sperm from human embryonic stem cells in vitro.

"This will be very important for research and ultimately, although definitely not yet, for fertility treatments."

Professor Nayernia said his research was submitted as "proof of principle" which needed confirmation by further studies. "Our intention was to open up new avenues of research," he said. "It seems unreasonable to criticise our work on the basis that we have not done more."

The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, which regulates research, has estimated that it will be at least five or 10 years before eggs of sperm could be produced which could potentially be used in treatment.

Before laboratory-produced sperm could be used to make babies for couples who are infertile, the 2008 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act would have to be changed.

Sperm: The facts

* It takes 10 weeks to make a sperm in the testes.

* Once produced they are stored for about a fortnight.

* If they are not ejaculated they are broken down and reabsorbed.

* A healthy male can produce 70 to 150 million sperm a day.

* A teaspoon can hold 200 to 500 million sperm.

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

School Office/ Finance Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Ilford: School Office/ Finance Assistant Long t...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album