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Stem cells are the cells in our body with the potential to develop into many different cell, including blood cells, nerve cells and brain cells. Due to this, stem cells have been extensively researched and there is great potential for them to be the future of combatting illnesses, repairing and replacing cells, and most recently- allowing same sex couples to have children without the need for donors or surrogates.
How can this be possible, I hear you ask?
We have been taught in school science lessons that a female egg and a male sperm are needed to make a baby. However, in February, scientists from Cambridge University and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel made a huge scientific breakthrough in stem cell research- one that means in just two years, a child will be able to have parents of the same sex.
Funded by the Wellcome Trust, the research team showed that human sex cells can be made from stem cells in the skin of two adults. This technique has already been mastered in animals such as rodents, but this is the first time it has been successful with human cells.
The scientists used stem cells from embryos and cells from the skin of five different adults. Ten different donor sources have been used so far and new sex-cell lines have been created from all of them. These stem cells identically match those taken from aborted foetuses (a process used to check that the artificial and natural matter matches up) and could revolutionize our notion of reproduction.
Azim Surani, research leader and also part of the team behind the world’s first test tube baby, had this to say: “We have succeeded in the first and most important step of this process, which is to show we can make these very early human stem cells in a dish. We have also discovered that one of the things that happens in these germ cells is that epigenetic mutations, the cell mistakes that occur with age, are wiped out.”
What are the main concerns with this research?
A revolutionary idea this may be, but there are still a number of concerns attached to the idea - and these affect both the scientific and wider communities.
Firstly, the concept has been linked to other IVF developments, and there are concerns that the process will lead to “designer babies”- where the genetic makeup of the child is controlled for unethical reasons. Social and ethical research should therefore not be undertaken lightly, as this new process could be met with a huge media and social backlash.
From a closer genetic perspective, it has also been demonstrated that having a child with same-sex parents will be easier with two males as opposed to two females. Males have an X and a Y chromosome, whilst females have two X chromosomes. Because of this, there would be added difficulty in adding a Y chromosome to an embryo formed from two females as it is easier to lose a chromosome than to add it. This factor also has the potential to increase the amount of time between research to the process actually being used by the public- the predicted two years may in fact turn out to be two decades. This is reinforced by the idea that only the first step of this has been completed-mature egg and sperm cells are still to be grown.
Whilst this newly discovered process has a lot of potential and will more than likely be used in the mainstream very soon, questions regarding the origin of the child and which parent is its official guardian may have legal implications in the future. However, it is thought by the researchers that the fact the parents are same sex will be advantageous in legal cases as parental right will be established with equality in mind.
Wider implications of the discovery
Same-sex couples hoping for a baby genetically their own are not the only ones who could benefit from this process. People suffering from age-related diseases are subject to DNA that picks up genetic mutations over time. However, the cells that form eggs and sperm are able to get rid of these mutations, meaning that no damaged genetic material would be passed down if this process was used instead of natural conception. Similarly to IVF, this process could also greatly help those unable to conceive children naturally.