Harvard scientists are challenging traditional medical logic that dictates that women are born with a finite amount of eggs. The scientists said they have discovered the ovaries of young women harbor rare stem cells that are in fact capable of producing new eggs.
If properly harnessed, those stem cells may someday lead to new treatments for women suffering from infertility due to cancer or other diseases – or for those who are simply getting older, according to the researchers. Lead researcher Jonathan Tilly of Harvard's Massachusetts General Hospital has co-founded a company, OvaScience Inc., to try to develop the findings into fertility treatments.
The idea that women are born with all the egg cells – called oocytes – they’ll ever have has been called into question by past research, which found egg-producing stem cells in adult mice.
In this latest study, Harvard researchers, in collaboration with Japanese scientists, used donated frozen ovaries from 20 year olds and ‘fished out’ the purported stem cells.
The researchers inserted a gene into the stem cells, which caused them to glow green. If the cells produced eggs, those would glow green, too.
The researchers first watched through a microscope as new eggs grew in a lab dish. They then implanted the human tissue under the skin of mice to provide a nourishing blood supply. Within two weeks, they observed green-tinged cells forming.
While the work of the Harvard scientists does show potential, there are still questions as to whether the cells are capable of growing into mature, usable eggs.
If so, researchers said, it might be possible one day to use the stem cells in order to grow eggs in lab dishes to help preserve cancer patients’ fertility, which can be harmed by chemotherapy.
Now, I just want to say, while this would be a remarkable discovery – if it pans out – I do have a few concerns.
I think for specific patients in prime, childbearing ages, who are at risk of losing their fertility for one reason or another, this could be a fruitful discovery for them.
Be that as it may, I am totally against commercializing this technology to the point where women going through menopause look at this as another way of getting pregnant. For many, this could create incredibly high-risk pregnancies, among other medical problems.
While science is capable of great discovery and innovation – particularly in the field of stem cells – I believe that with reproductive medicine, we should move forward with great caution to minimize any risk to mother and baby.