Imagine an artificial testicle built to produce sperm that will help infertile men have children. Sounds like science fiction, doesn't it? But this is exactly what researchers from California are hoping to achieve. Dr Paul Turek, from the Turek Clinic in San Fransisco, said that he and his colleagues plan to develop a "sperm-building biological machine", using stem cells (and a government grant they just received!). The machine won't look anything like an actual testicle, but it will fulfill much the same purpose.
Scientists have experimented with growing sperm cells in a lab before, in petri dishes. But they didn't succeed, because the sperm wouldn't go through all the necessary developmental stages. Turek says sperm go through about 12 different steps before they are fully formed. Unfortunately, previous attempts only led to stages 9 or 10. So, rather than trying to form sperm cells from scratch, he and his team will try to "recreate the testicle in an artificial environment, with all of its components".
Turek explained how his team plans to develop this sperm-creating machine, saying that they will first focus on so-called Sertoli cells which play a large role in sperm development. They will them add stem cells, which can be turned into any other kind of cells. The researchers planned to add genes to make sure the cells will develop on the right track.
The process is certainly very complex, and others inside the medical community have called Turek's project "ambitious". Cord blood banking has made the availability of embryonic stem cells more widespread, but infertile men who need treatment now won't have that luxury. Instead, scientists will have to take stem cells from their skin and "turn back the clock" on these cells.
It sure doesn't sound like all of this will come to pass very soon, but it sounds fascinating and like a potential hope for infertile couples in the future.