*All views expressed in this blog are our own opinions and have come from research conducted by ourselves and do not represent the views of Trinity College Dublin.
Recently there has been major progress in stem cell research. Cambridge University in the UK and the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel have had a breakthrough in process of creating egg and sperm cells using skin from same sex couples. This research is being led by Dr Azim Surani and Dr Jacob Hanna.
What are stem cells?
Before further discussion of this breakthrough, we’ll briefly discuss stem cells and what they do. Stem cells are cells that have the potential to grow and develop into many different cell types during early life and growth. There are two ways these stem cells are different to normal cells. They are unspecialised and even after being inactive for long periods of time, they are capable of renewing themselves through cell division. Another way these cells are different is the way under certain conditions, physiological and environmental, stem cells can change to become organ specific cells with specialised functions. (Stemcells.nih.gov)
Stem cells can come from embryos and adult humans. Embryonic stem cells are known as pluripotent stem cells. Meaning they can divide and become any type of cell in the body, meaning they have the ability to be used in numerous different ways such as treating diseases and injuries such as Parkinson’s disease, burns, rheumatoid arthritis, and so on. (ama-assn.org)
Adult stem cells were thought to have a more limited ability in becoming specialised cells as they are found in small numbers in tissues such as bone marrow and fat. Cells taken from bone marrow for example, were thought to only have the ability to change into similar cells, such as blood cells. But recently these stem cells have been used to create bone and heart cells.
Cells as Information Systems
Cells are what make up every organism. They contain genes which is all the information needed for our bodies to carry out all the functions necessary to live. In this way we can say that cells can be compared to information systems in that they are the codes and information our body (the system) processes to carry out functions.
With the recent breakthrough in stem cell research, Dr Surani, Dr Hanna and their teams have essentially “reprogrammed” cells to become “germ” cells. These germ cells are the cells that make sperm and egg cells.
The gene known as SOX17 in critical in the process of reprogramming these human cells. The first stage of this research has been successfully carried out but news of this breakthrough has caused some controversy among critics. (dailymail.com)
It has been argued that this kind of genetic engineering could also lead to social engineering. There are many different arguments for and against same sex parenting. This new technology could lead same sex biological parents within the next two years. This technology could give gay and lesbian couples the opportunity to create an embryo containing both of their DNA. This has gained support from many gay groups already. (newsweek.com)
This blog could go on to discuss the arguments surrounding same sex parenting, but our time will be better spent discussing the other arguments and opportunities arising from this new technology.
Critics have voiced their concerns over this technology, worried that this is the next step towards “designer babies”. Designer babies would be genetically engineered children whose parents have decided on their appearance and characteristics for example.
Advocates for this new technology have described how this technology can be used for many different things, apart from helping same sex couples create a biological family and creating “designer children”.
This breakthrough has given thousands of people hope for creating a family. These germ cells can be used to create reproductive cells for males and females who are infertile due to numerous different reasons, childhood cancer and other diseases for example.
Not only can these cells potentially be used to create children essentially, they can also be used to treat age-related illnesses which are caused by epigenetic changes in cells. Epigenetic changes are changes in cells that are not caused by genetics, for example smoking changes an individual’s DNA over time. (medicaldaily.com)
Equal opportunities for everyone to have a family is something that I would personally support, but there is a serious concern being raised here for me. Will these theoretical children that have been created through this technology be sterile, or will they themselves be able to reproduce naturally? If the child was born sterile and the parents knew this before conception, is this fair on the child? And will this have major repercussions years in the future if this fertility treatment is used more and more? These are questions that must be answered before this study could be ethically used in real life.
Thanks for reading!
Please see below articles which I have referenced below:
– AMA Publications. (2015). Basics of Stem Cell Research. Available: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/medical-science/genetics-molecular-medicine/related-policy-topics/stem-cell-research/basics-stem-cell-research.page?. Last accessed 9th March 2015.
– Dovey, D. (2015). Stem Cell Breakthrough Opens Door For Two-Dad Babies In As Little As 2 Years. Available: http://www.medicaldaily.com/stem-cell-breakthrough-opens-door-two-dad-babies-little-2-years-323350. Last accessed 9th March 2015.
– National Institutes of Health. (2014). Stem Cell Basics. Available: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/pages/basics1.aspx. Last accessed 8th March 2015.
– Richardson, H. (2015). Biological Babies For Same-Sex Parents a Possibility After Stem Cell Breakthrough. Available: http://www.newsweek.com/biological-babies-same-sex-parents-possibility-after-stem-cell-breakthrough-309453. Last accessed 9th March 2015.
– Spencer, B. (2015). Babies with no mother: Scientists say they can make human egg from skin of two men in new hope for infertile couples. But breakthrough sparks new fears over ‘designer’ children.Available: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2964586/Scientists-say-make-human-egg-skin-two-men.html. Last accessed 8th March 2015.