Stem cells are in the news again with two stories hitting the headlines recently. The first was a report that sperm could be produced artificially from embryonic stem cells. Then last week came the revelation that ordinary skin cells can be reprogrammed to grow into a brand new individual.
I have to declare a personal interest in the artificial sperm story, as I helped to identify the cells as sperm-like because they contain a protein only found in sperm.
What I didn’t expect was the mass of newspaper articles that seized upon the report as evidence of the “end of men”.
In reality we are still far from a situation where any sane person would want to create a human baby with such artificial sperm.
It’s true that baby mice were recently made this way, but all had serious abnormalities. However, the technology may eventually be perfected and could then be used to help men who are infertile because they fail to produce sperm in the normal way.
It might also allow gay or lesbian couples to have a baby that was biologically related to both partners – and it is this that most upsets right wing newspapers like the Daily Mail.
Personally I would be happy with such a possibility if it could be done safely.
There are those who argue that such a practice would be unnatural. But so are practically all other aspects of human life, from the food on our tables and the clothes we wear to the vehicles we drive.
Of course procreation was supposed to be different, a process either dependent on God’s will, or at least some mysterious vital force.
Yet with the development of the contraceptive pill in the 1950s, and then the birth of the first “test-tube” baby, Louise Brown, in 1978, the idea that there is a necessary link between sex and reproduction has been overturned.
Most remarkably, the gulf between the “germ cells” – the eggs and sperm that normally combine to make a new life – and other cells in the body has now been revealed to be less fundamental than previously thought.
Three years ago scientists discovered that if minor genetic changes are made to ordinary skin cells, then they become, like embryonic stem cells, able to turn into any cell in the body.
Now two Chinese research groups have shown that such “induced” stem cells created from mouse skin cells are able to make a new baby animal.
Opponents of research on embryonic stem cells prefer the use of induced stem cells as no embryos have to be destroyed in order to create them.
But the latest work raises the possibility that human induced stem cells could be used to create clones of particular individuals. Moreover such cells could be manipulated genetically, raising the prospect of “designer babies”.
Karl Marx said of capitalism that, “all that is solid melts into air; all that is holy is profaned”.
Many people are excited by the new reproductive technologies but many others are fearful of what kind of society they may be leading us towards.
Yet it is worth remembering that, unlike the atomic bomb or machine gun, reproductive technologies have never killed anyone, unless one equates a ball of cells with a living person.
A high priority for any rational, democratic society would be to assess the potential of these technologies to enrich our lives in a safe and responsible manner – but to do so will almost certainly require casting aside our ideas about what is natural based on past ways of viewing the world.