Page last updated at 13:35 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 14:35 UK

'Limit' to lab egg and sperm use

A successful human pregnancy could be many years away

Scientists say it is highly unlikely same-sex couples would be able to use lab-created egg and sperm as a way to create their own biological child.

And despite advances, it could be 20 years before the science can routinely create human pregnancies, a global team of researchers and ethicists has said.

There are high hopes so-called artificial gametes could be used by those who find themselves infertile.

But the ethical debate is far ahead of the science, the Hinxton Group warns.

The consortium of scientists, academics and lawyers from 14 countries say it is nonetheless vital that the public and policy makers engage with a field which has the power to spark such controversy.

Artificial gametes are sperm and eggs created from stem cells. There are a variety of potential sources, including early embryos left-over from IVF to cells taken from the skin or bone marrow of a would-be parent.

In the UK, legislation currently allows artificial gametes in research, but bans it for creating a human pregnancy.

However, amendments which would lift this ban - if and when the science was ready - have been tabled to a major fertility bill which is about to go before parliament.

Be patient

Supporters of the science say it would give those who are infertile - perhaps as a result of chemotherapy or the menopause - the chance to have their own genetically-related offspring, and could help overcome the shortage of sperm donors.

I don't see anything in particular that people should be alarmed about with this science
Professor John Harries

It has also been suggested that same-sex couples who want a child biologically linked to both of them could benefit.

There are lobby groups which oppose this and which have also raised the prospect of the "ultimate incest", in which the same person is both mother and father of a child.

But the Hinxton Group suggests the science needed for either of these looks very doubtful.

"The group felt that it is likely to be very difficult indeed to derive eggs that could be used for reproduction from men," said Professor Robin Lovell-Badge, of the UK's MRC National Institute for Medical Research.

"And it appears virtually impossible to get sperm from women."

So far, artificial sperm has only been used to create pregnancies in mice: the resulting offspring did not survive long, succumbing to genetic abnormalities.

The group says it could be 15 years before the science is ready for human application, and another five years on top of that to obtain the approval needed for widespread use.

More optimistic prognoses say the entire process could be completed within the next decade.

Government 'right' on embryo bill
22 Mar 08 |  UK Politics
'Lab-made sperm' fertility hope
09 Jul 06 |  Health
Q&A: Stem cells
19 May 05 |  Health

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