RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Scientists have, for the first time, used stem cells to create eggs in mice. This long-sought breakthrough raises the possibility of some day doing the same thing to help treat infertility in people. As NPR's Rob Stein reports, that's generating a lot of debate.
ROB STEIN, BYLINE: Scientists have long known that stem cells can be transformed into virtually any kind of cell in the body. That's why there's been so much excitement about trying to use them to cure diseases. But one big goal for stem cells has long remained elusive: the ability to turn them into eggs. Now, scientists at Kyoto University in Japan say they have finally done it. In this week's issue of the journal Science, the researchers report they used stem cells to create eggs in mice. They then used those eggs to breed healthy mice.
GEORGE DALY: It's just a really remarkable accomplishment.
STEIN: George Daly is a Harvard stem cell scientist.
DALY: This work does - it really does create remarkable possibilities for the future.
STEIN: For one thing, the work raises the possibility that stem cells could be used to generate a limitless supply of eggs for any woman at any point in her life. Ronald Green is a Dartmouth bioethicist.
RONALD GREEN: It may be possible for women to live their lives in a very different way, to stop the biological clock altogether.
STEIN: Now, a lot more work needs to be done to show this could be done in humans, too. But Daly says mice are similar enough to humans to think that that's a good bet. So some experts say the work could have much more far-reaching implications. Here's Dartmouth bioethicist Ronald Green again.
GREEN: All this suggests profound culture changes that might be forthcoming.
STEIN: The same group of scientists previously showed they could make sperm the same way. Together, Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely says this could let gay men and lesbian couples have truly genetically related children for the first time.
HANK GREELY: If you've got a lesbian couple, it becomes very easy. You make eggs from one, sperm from the other, and one of two of them carries the pregnancy.
STEIN: And Greely says there are potentially many other possibilities, especially if combined with new genetic techniques that let people choose their children's traits more easily.
GREELY: I think there's a good chance that in 20 to 40 years, most kids in countries with good health care systems will not be conceived in bed or the back seat of a car, but will be conceived in a Petri dish so their parents can get that blond or that brunette that they wanted, or to get somebody that they think will have a slightly higher chance of being good at math or good at music.
STEIN: Now, a lot of this is highly speculative and may never happen. But just the possibility is deeply troubling for some people. David Prentice follows these issues for the Family Research Council.
DAVID PRENTICE: That idea cheapens all life, in a way - not just embryonic or fetal life, but babies and the rest of us when we start treating life as a manufacturing proposition.
STEIN: That kind of reaction worries many scientists. They fear the Brave New World speculation may trigger such an intense reaction that it will squelch the possible benefits. Daniel Sulmasy is a professor of medicine and bioethicist at the University of Chicago.
DANIEL SULMASY: Like any other technology, whatever we've done in humankind, whether it's discovering fire or creating the wheel, you can use these things to do lots of good, and then you can use them in immoral ways.
STEIN: So it's clear that as scientists try to apply what they've learned from mice to people, a lot of ethical, moral and legal issues will need to be addressed first.
Rob Stein, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.