ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Scientists are reporting an advance that could some day help infertile men have children. They've figured out a way to make primitive human sperm.
NPR's Rob Stein reports on the research and some of the concerns around it.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Lots of couples have trouble having kids. And Renee Reijo Pera hears from them all the time.
RENEE REIJO PERA: I get letters. I probably get 200 emails a year from people who are infertile. And very often, the heading on the emails is: Can you help me?
STEIN: That's because Pera studies how human reproduction works.
PERA: And it goes on to tell the story of a person who's had cancer, has unexplained infertility, and they always just thought they would have children. And it's quite devastating for those couples.
STEIN: So one thing Pera has been trying to figure out is how to make sperm for men who can't make their own. She even tried something that may sound kind of crazy: Turning skin cells into sperm.
PERA: We isolated the skin cells and we added some genes to make them into pluripotent stem cells; very similar to human embryonic stem cells but they're coming from the skin of the adult men.
STEIN: Meaning that theoretically they could then become any other cell in the body, including maybe sperm cells. To see, she injected the skin cells she'd turned into stem cells into mice, into the tubes in their bodies that make sperm. And, voila, these cells became very immature human sperm cells.
PERA: It's much easier than we actually expected.
STEIN: Other researchers caution there's still a ton more work that needs to be done to prove these cells would actually become healthy sperm that could make a baby.
But George Daley, at Harvard, says that prospect is exciting.
GEORGE DALEY: It's, you know, one step closer to being able to make sperm in a Petri dish. So I think that's very provocative.
STEIN: Provocative because it could open the door to all sorts of things, including some things that some people might find disturbing.
RONALD GREEN: It's opening up a brave new world.
STEIN: That's Ronald Green, a bioethicist at Dartmouth. If this works, he says someone could steal someone's cells - even from a hair - to make their sperm without their permission.
GREEN: So it is not impossible in the future that a movie star may find some of his hair follicles purloined and then on the market as donor sperm. You can imagine some clandestine sperm bank saying: We're selling George Clooney's sperm.
STEIN: And Green says that's not all.
GREEN: Posthumous reproduction becomes a possibility, where people who are dead or long dead - so long as there is a live tissue sample somewhere being preserved - could be the parents of children.
STEIN: Would this appeal to the parents or the widow of a man who died in a war or some other way? Green thinks maybe. So, Green says, society should take steps to prevent that kind of thing from happening.
GREEN: I think we're going to have to craft a new human right. And that is the right to consent to being a parent. So I think we're going to have put rules in place to make this an offense, a criminal offense.
STEIN: As for Renee Reijo Pera, she acknowledges her research could be misused. But she's optimistic that it won't.
PERA: With any technology there really is a worry about misuse. But there does seem to be a natural inclination in people to do the right thing. Most people want to have their own child. It's not that they want to have somebody else's child, even George Clooney's child, in my estimation.
STEIN: So, Pera is planning to take this to the next step, to see if she can prove that skin cells can really be used safely to make healthy human sperm.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
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