A new technique which could enable two lesbians to have a baby which shares both their genes has been pioneered in the United States. It is already being tested on human eggs and could be available in as little as 18 months.
Scientists at the Reproductive Genetics Institute in Chicago have devised a way to create 'artifical sperm' from any cell in a woman's body which can be used to fertilize another woman's egg. The technique was initially developed to allow men with no sperm - those who have received radiotherapy or chemotherapy for cancer, for example, to father children. But it is being seen as a way of enabling lesbian couples to have a baby with genes from both partners.
The process, known as haploidisation, has already proved successful in experiments on mice and the U.S. scientists are now trying to produce viable human embryos. It involves taking half the genetic material from one cell and injecting it into another woman's egg, resulting in an embryo which contains half of the mother's genes and half of the cell donor's genes.
A British expert who has been working with the Chicago team said the results of the research so far were 'promising'. Mohammed Taranissi of the Assisted Gynaecology Research Centre in London said: "It's being done in human eggs as we speak and the first results are going to be presented at a conference in April."
A lesbian couple from Coventry, Adele and Dawn, said last night that they wanted their names put forward for any medical trial of the technique. "It would mean everything to us if we could have our own baby.", they said. But Professor Bill Ledger of Sheffield University, who works on human embryonic stem cells, said he disapproved of haploidisation because "of the high risk of creating damaged people".
INFERTILE men will soon be able to become fathers by producing artificial sperm, if a project under way at a London clinic proves successful. The technique involves cell extraction and would mark a new development in reproductive science. A team at the Assisted Reproduction and Gynaecology Centre is investigating how to take a body cell and remove one set of chromosomes to create the artificial sperm, which can then be used to fertilise an egg by conventional IVF methods.
There is no need to produce artificial semen to make the technique work. The development of artificial sperm would do away with one claimed justification for human cloning, which most experts agree carries far too much risk to be tried on patients.
Dr Severino Antinori, the controversial Italian fertility doctor, has said that he wants to carry out research in Britain in his efforts to clone children from men unable to father them naturally. While a cloned offspring would be genetically identical to the father, the artificial sperm technique would allow the creation of offspring who are a natural mix of genes from mother and father, even when the man has no sperm or even sperm-making cells.
Mohamed Taranissi, medical director of the centre, said: "The project is at the research stage at the moment and we are working on it to get it right. The indications are quite promising." He is working with a team at the Reproductive Genetic Institute in Chicago, led by Dr Yury Verlinsky. The Chicago team visited London this month to discuss an experimental programme to develop the technology.
Mr Taranissi said: "If it does work then it would be a far better solution than the alternatives." However, he stressed: "It will be at least a year or two before we will be ready to consider using it." Unlike normal cells, which have two sets of chromosomes, a sperm contains only one set. Mr Taranissi said: "For people who have no sperm, you can take a cell, which contains the full complement of chromosomes, halve the number and end up with something like a sperm."
In Chicago, experiments are under way with mice and using frozen human eggs, which have been donated for research. "If this becomes reality there will be no need for cloning, at least for the treatment of infertility," said Mr Taranissi. The research complements efforts to enable infertile women to "reprogramme" donated eggs with their own genetic recipe, also to help couples to have babies that are their own genetic offspring.
Dr Orly Lacham-Kaplan of Monash University, Melbourne, has already succeeded in "fertilising" a normal mouse egg by using an artificial sperm, a cell taken from the body of a male. The embryos go on to develop relatively normally in the laboratory.