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In the future we may not need sperm or eggs to have children

Recent advances in the field of artificial uteri and embryogenesis from stem cells will revolutionize the future of motherhood.

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If we put together the pieces of the research puzzle that is being carried out today in the matter of ectogenesis, embryogenesis and reproduction from stem cells, we get a pretty good overview of what could be the human reproduction of the future, and it would not be very different to the one anticipated by Aldous Huxley in his novel A Happy World (1932): the reproduction without sex, children conceived and gestated in artificial wombs that would not need to be born, but be liberated to the world.

Gestar in an artificial womb, outside the womb, is something more than an immaculate conception, since it does not require a woman neither to conceive, nor to gether, nor to give birth. A few months ago, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (USA) managed to produce lamb fetuses – which are the ones that most resemble premature babies between twenty-three and twenty-four weeks – in an artificial womb. The feat was published in the journal Nature. The lambs went ahead, and it was shown that it can be grown in an artificial uterine environment for up to four weeks.

On the other hand, in August of this year, a different team formed by members of the Women & Infants Research Foundation, the University of Western Australia and the Japanese University of Tohoku published a very similar achievement in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.

These experiments are an advance of what in the future will undoubtedly be the rescue technology focused on premature babies born before twenty-eight weeks. They are the ones who run the most risk since their organs are not well developed and present functional failures, and therefore lead the death statistics in the western world.

Artificial uteri, as a technique of assisted reproduction

The list of pioneers who join the rescue race of those born prematurely stretches across the planet, but science advances fast and is ready to take another step. Artificial uteri could be used as a technique of assisted reproduction and not only as mere tools to intervene in cases of premature birth. The range of possibilities that opens is promising, but is involved in an important controversy and a bioethical debate.

The first obstacle to save is of a legal nature: research with human embryos of more than fourteen days is prohibited, so, despite the fact that scientists have managed to develop an embryo in an artificial environment, that is, in vitro, for two weeks, they have not been able to go further, because at the end of that period they were forced to destroy it. Meanwhile, biotechnology advances, and scientists say that artificial wombs are already prepared to give birth to a human fetus for nine and a half months.

If we unite the advances in the field of ectogenesis with those that have occurred in the field of embryogenesis from stem cells, we are no longer talking only about dispensing with the uterus, but that, in the future, it is very possible that we even go to a type of conception without sex – something that current techniques of assisted reproduction allow – even without ovules and sperm.

In this sense, last March scientists from the University of Cambridge (United Kingdom) created for the first time an embryo from stem cells, more specifically a three-dimensional structure “that resembles an embryo and grows similarly”, according to the magazine Science . The research, led by Polish biologist Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, was carried out with mouse cells.

While science advances in leaps and bounds investigating the possibilities of these revolutionary techniques of assisted reproduction, here in Spain, Carlos Simón, scientific director of Igenomix, Biotechnology Company specializing in genetic research, and former scientific director of the Valencian Institute of Infertility (IVI), can proudly boast of having created fertile human sperm from stem cells of the male’s own skin.

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