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Infertility breakthrough? Scientists turn skin cells into sperm

Lia Grainger
Shine On
August 29, 2012

Can skin tissue become sperm? According to the results of a new study, the answer is yes, and they may one day provide a cure for male infertility, reports the Telegraph.

Past research has shown that a human cell can be manipulated in a lab into a more basic state called a pluripotent cell, and then converted into other types of cells. In the latest issue of the journal Cell Reports, a team of researchers from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine announced they had successfully converted skin cells into a variety of other human cells, including early stage sperm cells.

This research could one day be particularly useful in restoring the fertility of men who have cancer or who have had it in the past. This is because cancer therapies destroy the body's fast growing cells, including early stage sperm cells. While some men have the chance to store some of their testicular tissue before undergoing therapy, those who do not, such as young boys, end up permanently sterile.

So how big of a breakthrough is this for the treatment of male infertility?

"It's certainly significant, if it can be repeated," says Dr. Kirk Lo of Mount Sinai Hospital. Lo is a Toronto urologist specializing in male infertility, and has also been attempting to grow sperm in a lab. His method is different; it uses grafting to attempt to grow human sperm in mice. Lo says that while the study published in Cell Reports is scientifically interesting, people shouldn't get excited about its clinical applications just yet.

[See also: Birth rate declines in Canada]

First, he says, it needs to be shown that it is repeatable. Then there is the fact that they've produced a spermatid, a cell in an earlier and less developed than a fully formed spermatozoa.

"Can you use a spermatid to create a baby? Yes, says Lo. "But live birth is very rare, and the chances of defects are very high." As such, clinicians like himself do not recommend it.

The origins of these spermatids could also cause potential problems. They come from pluripotent cells, which often contain a lot of chromosomal abnormalities — hardly ideal if you want to turn that cell into a human being.

"From a scientific perspective, this finding could provide an excellent tool to study sperm production," says Ko, "but there are still some factors missing here, and we need to be cautious about trying to push this into clinical practice too quickly."

So while these skin-cells-turned-baby-sperm-cells may not be turning into actual babies anytime soon, it's certainly a step in the right direction.

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