Infertile women may one day be given stem cell injections to repopulate their ovaries with fresh eggs, according to a team of scientists.Hopes for the new therapy follow experiments in which sterilised mice produced eggs and went on to give birth to healthy young after adult females had stem cells injected into their ovaries.
If the procedure can be made to work in humans, it could lead to therapies that extend fertility beyond the menopause and help younger women who are unable to conceive because their eggs have been damaged by cancer therapies or disease.
The controversial research challenges the long-held belief that most female mammals are born with a fixed number of eggs and are unable to make more throughout their lives.The study, which appears in the journal Nature Cell Biology, was received with caution, with some experts emphasising that the findings are tentative and need to be confirmed by other researchers.
In the study, scientists led by Ji Wu at Shanghai Jiao Tong University extracted what they believe to be stem cells from the ovaries of adult and five-day-old mice. These were grown into a large stock of cells, which the researchers call female germline stem cells (FGSCs).
Germline cells are the only cells in the body that grow into sperm or eggs. While sperm-making stem cells have been found in male testes, no one has ever found in controvertible evidence for similar cells that make eggs in ovaries.
To test whether the extracted cells could make eggs, the researchers sterilised a group of female mice using busulphan, a chemotherapy drug. They then injected 10,000 stem cells into both ovaries of each mouse. The cells had been frozen and thawed out before being used, to simulate the conditions they would be kept in if stored for human patients.
A few months after leaving the mice to mate naturally, 18 out of 22 that received stem cell transplants from newborn mice gave birth to pups. A further 12 out of 15 females injected with stem cells from adult mice also gave birth. All of the offspring appeared to be healthy.
In their journal report, the team write that the work suggests eggs “can be regenerated in sterile recipient females by transplantation of FGSCs”.If scientists can find stem cells in women’s ovaries, the Shanghai team’s study shows it might be possible to use them to create stocks of cells for women, which could be stored in a deep freeze until they are needed “This paper will stimulate lots of activity in the scientific community, as happens when any dogma is challenged,” said Robin Lovell-Badge, a researcher into stem cells at the MRC National Institute For Medical Research in London.
“A lot more work is needed to understand what these new cells really are, and to verify the findings and the claims,” he added.
Lovell-Badge points out that some of the mice may not have been completely sterilised before being treated, making it impossible to know whether their offspring came from surviving or regenerated eggs.
“If true, and especially if applicable also to humans, then this is very important. It could provide a means to restore fertility to women who have few eggs or who have had to undergo cancer therapies,” he added
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