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March 05, 2012

A crack in the origin of eggs: policy and fertility implications of oogonial stem cells

by Lisa Willemse, with Ubaka Ogbogu and Timothy Caulfield

The announcement last week that a team of researchers had identified stem cells responsible for generating human eggs caused a ripple of excitement for several reasons. Not only does the news end a controversy regarding an assertion by the same research team that such oogonial stem cells even existed in humans (based on research done in mice), it would appear that this finding will rewrite medical textbooks and change a long-held belief that women are born with all the eggs they will ever have.

Indeed, if oogonial stem cells can give rise to full developed oocytes, it represents a significant crack in the entire notion of fertility and the possibility that adult women of any age could reproduce, as many have noted. If this is the case, IVF clinics could one day find their doors wide open, with fewer limitations on what and who could be a potential client for treatment. 

A seemingly obvious question, then, would be whether such procedures to create eggs for fertilization from oogonial stem cells, either for research or reproductive purposes, would be legal. As we have seen many times before, policy is rarely able to anticipate the directions of science, and thus there is no provision that explicitly deals with the use of stem cells to create oocytes.

In Canada, such activities fall under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act (AHRA). Ubaka Ogbogu, Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Law at the Universtiy of Alberta (and regular contributor to this blog) notes:

Under the AHRA the process of creating oocytes from oogonial stem cells is not banned, but likely regulated (Assisted Human Reproduction Canada license required), however, if the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision is implemented by the federal government, the activity might not even be regulated at all or fall to the provinces to regulate. This would apply for oocytes created for reproductive purposes, but not necessarily for research purposes -- using the oocytes for stem cell research would be likely banned depending on the method, which would follow the same rules as for using normal oocytes for stem cell research. 

A further question that complicates matters, is whether the eggs, when created using this method, can be considered reproductive material. Answers to that question may have to wait until science has taken the time to both replicate the initial study and assess the quality and exact nature of the resulting eggs. As with many new findings, it will be some time before any of it translates into clinical options.

 

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