It sounds like something out of science fiction. But experiments with mice by scientists at the University of Bath have shown that it may be possible to create a baby without an egg in the future.
Researchers created a ‘parthenogenote’ mouse embryo – effectively a pseudo-embryo made by using chemicals to trick an egg into developing. They then injected a sperm into this pseudo-embryo and transferred it back to a female mouse, eventually resulting in the successful birth of a mouse pup.
Although researchers used egg cells for their work, as these pseudo-embryos behave just like skins-cells, they argue that in future the process could be possible with the need for an egg at all. Or, as some headlines have suggested today, 'without the need for a woman to make a baby'.
I congratulate the University of Bath team for their achievement. What they have discovered is truly groundbreaking. As a scientist working in the field, I’m excited about any findings that take forward our understanding of the complex process of fertilisation.
What’s disappointing, though, is that these results have been used once again to pitch men against women, or even sideline women.
Fertility treatment of any sort is about creating families. Judging each development on its ability to cut out one gender or the other is to miss the point of treatments that have brought joy to millions of people over the last 40 years.
To me, the most exciting potential application for this new technology is for women who don't have any egg reserves – because of premature menopause, the medical removal of ovaries or because of the effects of cancer treatment. This is a devastating scenario for anyone who hopes to be a parent and I see the results announced today as a lifeline for them, just like similar work in China which created artificial sperm gives hope to men in similar circumstances.
Unfortunately, the reality is that applying these findings to human reproduction remains a distant reality.
Apart from the regulatory hurdles – in this country it is still illegal to use artificial embryos in humans – I have serious concerns about the potential for genetic errors in babies born using this type of process. To understand how environmental factors might affect the development of these babies (smoking, diet and so on) will take many, many years.
As to the more lurid speculation that women could be cut out of the process entirely? In my view, they would still have an essential role in the gestation of the embryo - as despite advances I’m yet to be convinced a man’s body has the organ capacity to support a womb.
What I want is more money and research time being put into new techniques that will make fertility treatment simpler, safer and less expensive.
There are technologies that already exist which make it possible to successfully carry out IVF in a lab the size of a shoe box, or to use a simple plastic chamber inside a woman’s body to hold an egg and sperm and create an embryo.
This technology is not science fiction and if made more widely available it could transform the lives of millions of people in the developing and developed world who have no hope of accessing fertility treatment.
To me this is the next frontier of fertility research – not just the breakthroughs that might benefit the lucky few years from now, but readily applicable treatments, with no ethical barriers that we know will work. Treatments that are simple, safe and cost effective and can change lives.
Today’s headlines are exciting, but they are a distraction from what we can achieve on the ground right now.
- As published in The Telegraph on 15th September 2016.