Leading article: Glimpses of the future for female fertility

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The Independent Online

The significance of the scientific breakthrough that we report today can hardly be overestimated. Scientists at Edinburgh University, working with a team from the Harvard Medical School in the United States, are about to produce the first human egg cells to be grown entirely in the laboratory from stem cells. The next step is to try to fertilise these eggs to establish whether they produce normal, healthy embryos. The scientists are on the point of requesting a licence to conduct this research, and it could go ahead before the end of the year.

If healthy embryos do result, the implications will be enormous. Those scientists now speculating about the prospect of creating an "elixir of life" may be running ahead of themselves. But if it can be shown that laboratory-grown eggs behave exactly like natural eggs, this raises the possibility that the female menopause could become a thing of the past. There could be attendant health benefits for women, and the prospect of a woman's fertility lasting as long as a man's.

The desirability of elderly motherhood, of course, if it became possible, might be a moot point. But the feasibility of reversing the menopause in women who experience it prematurely, or restoring the fertility of young women who have been treated with chemotherapy, has to be a highly positive development. That the same breakthrough holds the promise of an almost endless supply of eggs could not only revolutionise the treatment of female infertility, but also end the present shortage of eggs that has held back research.

While the credit for this pioneering work obviously belongs with the scientists and their academic institutions, compliments should also be paid to the far-sightedness of Parliament in passing the 1990 Human Fertility and Embryology Act and its 2008 successor. The fact that the UK has a comprehensive legal framework for such research, and had one in place earlier than most other countries, has enabled it to become a world leader in the field. It is a stellar example of how government can help to foster scientific advance.