Scientists have shown for the first time that sperm grown from embryonic stem cells can be used to produce offspring.
The experiment was carried out using mice and produced seven babies, six of which lived to adulthood.
The breakthrough, reported today, Monday July 10, in the academic journal Developmental Cell, helps scientists to understand more about how animals produce sperm. This knowledge has potential applications in the treatment of male infertility.
Karim Nayernia, who has just taken up a post as Professor of Stem Cell Biology at Newcastle University, led the research while in his previous position at Georg-August University in Gttingen, Germany, with Prof. Dr Wolfgang Engel and colleagues from Germany and the UK, including Dr. David Elliott from Newcastle University's Institute of Human Genetics.
Stem cells have the potential to develop into any tissue type in the body and could therefore be used to develop a wide range of medical therapies.
Prof Nayernia, of the Newcastle-Durham-NHS Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine*, and his team describe in their paper how they developed a new strategy for generating mature sperm cells in the laboratory using embryonic stem cells from mice. They then went on to test whether this sperm would function in real life.
The team isolated stem cells from a blastocyst, an early-stage embryo that is a cluster of cells only a few days old.
These cells were grown in the laboratory and screened using a special sorting machine. Some had grown into a type of stem cell known as 'spermatogonial stem cells', or early-stage sperm cells.
The spermatogonial cells were singled out, then genetically marked and grown in the laboratory. Some of them grew into cells resembling sperm, known as gametes, which were themselves singled out and highlighted using a genetic marker.