How will artificial sperm success affect further research?
Anna Smajdor, researcher in medical ethics at Imperial College, London
Progress Educational Trust17 July 2006
The success achieved by Professor Karim Nayernia et al in obtaining offspring from 'artificial sperm' has been widely reported over the past week. The research may shed light on the complex developmental processes involved in gamete formation. It has also been suggested that in the future, therapeutic cloning in conjunction with sperm derivation could enable infertile men to produce sperm which contains their own genetic material. For research, simply having access to sperm developed in the laboratory would be a significant step in speeding up the pace of stem cell research, and might help to bring forward the time when we start to see the long-heralded benefits of stem cell technology.
But these possibilities generate new controversies. Debates over whether to use eggs from aborted fetuses in fertility treatments ended in a general consensus that this was unethical. Is the creation of embryos for the derivation of sperm cells any more acceptable than this? For those who disagree with embryo research, the position is fairly clear. However, even for people who do not oppose this kind of research there could be something objectionable about the idea of conceiving children from the sperm of an embryo which was never itself born.
Some of the concern over this issue relates to its anticipated effects on children born from 'artificial' gametes. Would children be psychologically damaged by knowing that their genetic parents were a cluster of embryonic stem cells in a laboratory? The answer to this rests on the weight we place on genetic parenthood. In the UK, legislation was recently passed to allow children born from donated gametes to trace the donor. This suggests an assumption that children have a fundamental need to know their genetic parents.
But research suggests that most psychological damage to donor-conceived children occurs where they are initially deceived as to their origins, and then discover that their 'real' parent was a sperm donor, leaving them with feelings of confusion and resentment. This seems to indicate that, in fact, not knowing one's genetic parent may not be so damaging after all, provided that children are not misled as to their parentage.
While a donor-conceived child might wonder about the motives and personality of his/her adult sperm donor father, children born from artificial gametes would not have scope to speculate about the motives or personality of the embryo from which the stem cells were obtained. Perhaps such children would regard the adults who bring them up as being their parents; if so, the derivation of the gametes might seem irrelevant.
However, if this were the case, it could call into question the whole purpose of going to such lengths to obtain genetically-related gametes: if sharing genes with parents is not intrinisically necessary for children's wellbeing, why does it seem so important to parents themselves? One answer to this is that we are biologically hard-wired to want to transmit our genes. This may or may not be true. However, what does seem obvious is that in addition to whatever biological drives we have, there are strong social and cultural pressures at work in forming our understandings of parenthood and genetic transmission.
Our cultural tendency to emphasise the importance of the genetic component in reproduction may actually undermine the possible benefits which could accrue from the development of artificial sperm, in diminishing the number of embryos donated for research. Usually, these embryos are obtained from patients undergoing fertility treatment. But growing awareness that these embryos could be used in the creation of gametes creates concern for donors. Donated embryos are not 'finished' at the time of research if their sperm or eggs could be created from them and used for reproductive purposes in the future.
It has been suggested that donors should be able to stipulate that their embryos are not used in the development of artificial gametes. This would constitute a major hindrance to further research in this area, which in turn would mean that the availability of artificial gametes for fertility treatments would be compromised.
It seems that, ironically, if we want to realise the full potential that artificial sperm offers, we need to demystify our concepts of genes and parenthood. The desire to control what happens to 'our' genes is misguided. None of us 'owns' our genetic material, any more than we own our children. The ways in which we develop responsibility for our children are extremely complex and involve more than the sharing of a few genes. To benefit from the advantages that stem cell research may have to offer, we need to move away from the genetically simplistic concept of parenthood that currently prevails.
Reproduced with permission from BioNews, an email and online sources of news, information and comment on assisted reproduction and genetics.