Page URL: https://www.progress.org.uk/ncobbodies20

This policy document is part of a response submitted by the Progress Educational Trust (PET) to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics' Consultation on Human Bodies in Medicine and Research.


Are you aware of any developments (scientific or policy) which may replace or significantly reduce the current demand for any particular form of bodily material or for first-in-human volunteers? How effective do you think they will be?

It is hoped that advancements in stem cell technology and regenerative medicine will lead to the creation of gametes and organs in the laboratory. For example, researchers at Newcastle University have treated human embryonic stem cells with a chemical to prompt them into becoming germline stem cells - stem cells that are found in the reproductive organs, and give rise to eggs and sperm. By selecting out these germline stem cells and continuing to grow them in the presence of chemicals, the cells have been successfully developed into early-stage human sperm cells.

If such techniques should lead to the successful creation of mature human sperm cells, and if it therefore becomes possible to create 'in vitro derived' gametes in the laboratory, then this would represent a considerable advance in our understanding of human development. Furthermore, it could also potentially allow conception to occur without the need for testes or ovaries. This could have useful therapeutic applications - for example, in those whose testes or ovaries have been affected or removed in the course of treatment for cancer.

However, therapeutic use of in vitro derived gametes is currently prohibited in UK law. The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008, allows only 'permitted' eggs and sperm - defined as eggs and sperm that have been 'produced by or extracted from' the testes or ovaries - to be placed in a woman.

It might be possible to reduce the demand for donated gametes through the use of in vitro derived gametes, and it is important that this research is pursued and that a change in legislation permitting its therapeutic application is considered. That said, the state of this research and its possible application has been somewhat exaggerated in media coverage. The challenges that still need to be overcome are considerable, and therapeutic applications may still be a long way off. We must take care not to create premature expectations or false hope.