Did Researchers Really Grow Human Sperm from Stem Cells?

By Eliza Strickland | July 9, 2009 10:21 am

spermBritish researcher Karim Nayernia says he has produced human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time, but his claims have been met with some skepticism. Embryonic stem cells can develop into any kind of cell in the body, but researchers have struggled for years to produce reproductive cells from stem cells. The task is particularly difficult because it requires a complex form of cell division called meiosis, which reduces the number of chromosomes per cell by half [Nature News]. In the new study, published in the journal Stem Cells and Development, Nayernia says his team used a special cocktail of growth factors to transform stem cells into sperm.

But male fertility expert Allan Pacey says the lab’s creations are too abnormal to be called sperm. “I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells produced by Professor Nayernia’s group from embryonic stem cells can be accurately called ‘spermatazoa.” … Pacey said in a statement that the sperm created by Nayernia did not have the specific shape, movement and function of real sperm [AP].

Nayernia argues that the experiment was a proof-of-concept, and notes that while the lab-grown cells did have some abnormalities, they contained four important characteristics of sperm. They contain half the number of chromosomes of other human cells (somatic cells contain 46 chromosomes, but egg and sperm cells have only 23, since they combine their genetic payloads during fertilization); they possess a head and a tail; they contain proteins essential for activating the egg during fertilization; and they swim, or move as sperm do in seeking out eggs to fertilize [Time].

While the news is likely to raise ethical concerns, Nayernia stressed the researchers had no intention of “producing human life in a dish” [BBC News]. Indeed, British law forbids it–even if Nayernia got one of his lab-grown sperm cells to fertilize a human egg, the resulting embryo would have to be destroyed after 14 days under a law that prohibits the creation of embryos for research. But the sperm alone are of great interest to researchers. The new technique “will allow researchers to study in detail how sperm forms and lead to a better understanding of infertility in men,” Professor Nayernia said in a statement…. “This understanding could help us develop new ways to help couples suffering infertility so they can have a child which is genetically their own” [Bloomberg]. 

Nayernia’s group is now working on creating sperm from the skin cells of infertile men [Time]. They’ve also created sperm from mouse embryonic stem cells, and are now testing whether that sperm can successfully fertilize a mouse egg and produce healthy pups.

Related Content:
80beats: Older Fathers’ Sperm May Produce Children With Slightly Lower IQs
80beats: Testicles Could Yield Stem Cells Without the Ethical Complications
80beats: Men Have a Biological Clock, Too looks at male fertility rates

Image: iStockphoto

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Jumblepudding

    This could be promising if human sperm counts continue to decline. Not that low population is a problem at this point.

  • Larry Donn

    I’ve long since ceased to get excited about some scientists’ discoveries. They’re almost never as significant as we are led to believe, and most seem to be a waste of time and money. I can’t think of anything that could be accomplished with these phony “sperm” cells that can’t be done with real sperm cells, which most men have in abundance.

  • http://clubneko.net Nick

    Very shortsighted comment, Larry.

    Unless, of course, you’re part of the religious right.

    After all, if you can create sperm in a dish, that means you can create sperm from a lady, and then she can have a genetically related child with her lesbian partner.

    And you’re forgetting, of course, the fact that we have to test what is possible to find out whether or not the possible is helpful or not.

    E=MC^2 didn’t have too much of an impact except on the physics community for quite a few years. Then we dropped the bomb and everything changed. E=MC^2 is the most powerful equation we know how to exploit.

    I think he also missed this quote: ” The new technique “will allow researchers to study in detail how sperm forms and lead to a better understanding of infertility in men,” Professor Nayernia said in a statement…. “This understanding could help us develop new ways to help couples suffering infertility so they can have a child which is genetically their own” “

  • Jojo

    Ha! ABC’s Nightline riffed on this news in Friday night story:

    A World Without Men:
    http://abcnews.go.com/video/playerIndex?id=8057662

  • http://biotechnology-genetic-humancells.blogspot.com/ rendev

    Hi

    Fantastic Work!
    This discovery also help to better understand how genetic diseases were passed from generation to generation. Thanks!

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