Harvard scientists, in collaboration with Mass General Hospital, may have discovered a new kind of stem cell that controls production of eggs in women. If verified, it could be the first stem towards helping women struggling with infertility.
Dr. Jonathan Tilly first reported on the potential stem cells in 2004, when he reported that these stem cells in the ovaries of mice. This flies in the face of the traditional understanding of fertility, which had shown that all mammals are born with a fixed number of eggs that deplete over time. Tilly's team identified cells that could be responsible for producing new eggs, although it is unclear whether they are stem cells or immature eggs .
The team extracted the cells, engineered them to glow in the presence of oocytes, and placed them into human ovaries. Then, they implanted the ovaries under the skin of mice after engineering the eggs to glow green. This bioluminescent marker showed that eggs were developing in the mice, which could suggest that the stem cells prompted the ovaries to produce new eggs.
Alternatively, it could show that an immature egg, when placed in an appropriate environment, will continue to grow into a more mature egg. Either way, the study does not show that the developing oocytes are viable for transplantation or fertilization.
If these cells are in fact stem cells, why don't they kick in automatically once a women reaches a certain age. It seems that there are still many questions to answer about these cells before they can be used to treat infertile women. The article mentions young cancer patients as a population that could greatly benefit from this type of research. Before women undergo debilitating radiation or chemotherapy, sections of the ovaries can be stored and later used to produce viable eggs for transplantation.
If this technology does yield solutions to infertility issues, I worry that it could be used by older women to have babies long their bodies have stopped producing eggs. As New York magazine reported last September, there are already a slew of ways that women in their 40s and 50s (and maybe even later) can be coaxed into fertility through technology and drugs. As great as this could be for cancer patients and women suffering from other conditions, it could convince women that having children is possible on their terms, even once their bodies have moved well past their healthy, fertile years.
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