Are babies from same-sex couples really possible?

Since Shinya Yamanaka reprogrammed first mouse and then human ordinary cells into powerful pluripotent stem cells, termed induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, back in 2006-2007 many new research avenues have opened up.

The impossible suddenly seemed a lot more possible with the report of iPS cells (aka IPSC). People started asking many more creative questions, The biomedical sciences now had more potential to make the seemingly impossible become reality.

One question that has come up: could same sex couples have their own biological children?

There’s been a lot of hype on this question in the media in the last week including these headlines and stories:

One article claimed that same sex parents could have their own biological offspring within 2 years. That’s just total baloney. However, in the long run within 1-2 decades this very well could be achieved. The excitement and over-exuberance in some cases with the media over this issue stems from recent work published in Cell from the labs of Drs. Azim Surani and Jacob Hanna on a more efficient way to produce human primordial germ cells (PGCs) via iPS cell-related methods.

Hanna was quoted thusly by Newsweek:

“This is very exciting biology,” says Dr Hanna. “We have succeeded in the first and most important step of the process, where we have reached the progenitor cell state for sperm and egg. We have not yet achieved mature sperm and eggs. So we are now focusing on completing the second half of this process.”

stem cell gametesThere’s no doubt that this is important work in this paper, but it’s a long, complicated road to get from the point A of the state of this research today to point B, where it could actually be used to produce human babies.

Still, what is so different now is that one can see a roadmap how to possibly get to that new reality.

Update: It’s also notable that Katsuhiko Hayashi and Mitinori Saitou have been able to produce living mice from stem cell-derived gametes (image above of method from one of their papers and another relevant paper to read; hat tip to Andrew Childs).

“It is probably a long way off, but it would be a way for people who have had treatment for conditions such as childhood leukaemia, which has left them infertile, to have children of their own,” Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem-cell biology and developmental genetics at the National Institute for Medical Research, told The Sunday Times.”

I agree with Dr. Lovell-Badge on his view of this. Such technology could not only facilitate same sex couples have their own children (in the sense of genetically related to both parents), but also have a number of medical benefits such as tackling the general problem of infertility and more specifically allowing cancer patients who were treated with chemo to still have their own children later on in life as Dr. Lovell-Badge indicated. There’s great potential here even as we should be careful to note a realistic timeline and the health of children produced this way could be an issue.

IPS cell cloning

An additional cautionary note is needed as well related to cloning.

Unfortunately, there’s a ‘dual use issue’ here. This same kind of technology, if applied by some rogue scientists, could be used to clone human beings as well. This kind of technology could lead to both sperm and egg production from a single individual, which when followed by IVF, could in principle produce a human clone. See diagram above of how this could work with an individual male to be cloned (from Stem Cells: An Insider’s Guide). In theory this cloning method could work just as well with a woman too, but for male offspring somehow a Y chromosome would need to come into play. Even if it wouldn’t be easy to get this cloning to work, it might well work with enough money and effort. There are people out there who really want to clone themselves or others too so the motivation is there.

I’m not trying to freak people out, but this possibility of cloning is very possible in coming decades. It’s probably well past time for reproductive human cloning to be formally banned in the US. We still should allow therapeutic cloning of human ES cell lines. Realistically, given national politics, can we hope that politicians would be able to ban one kind of human cloning (reproductive) and still allow the other (therapeutic) to be legal in the US? I don’t know. Probably not any time soon.

As I said at the beginning of this article, amazing new things are possible that once seemed only in the realm of sci-fi, but with the good will also come some complicated baggage.

9 thoughts on “Are babies from same-sex couples really possible?


  1. Maybe i am mistaken, but making a baby from my own iPS cell derived egg and sperm wouldn’t be an exact clone, right? It would be composed of two random halves of my genome which are highly unlikely to reconstitute me.


    • Hi Annabel,
      Yeah, I thought about that too. Good point.
      I suppose it depends on how one defines a clone and also the extent to which crossing over/recombination occur during meiosis in vitro in a dish.
      On Twitter today Andrew Childs said crossing over has not been demonstrated in these systems (https://twitter.com/DrAndyChilds/status/572791268499173377).
      In the absence of crossover (a big assumption) in a hypothetical human cloning effort using this technology, then in theory you could do something like pre-implantation genetic diagnosis of early embryos to find those that were clones of the original human. Maybe?


  2. Offspring produced using gametes from the same individual surely wouldn’t be very viable due to deleterious effects of some homozygous recessive genes.

    Anyway, why would it be so terrible to clone a person? Would the children be that much worse off than ‘normal’ kids?


  3. Another interesting thing I will add (and bear with me) that I have thought about regarding induced oocyte and sperm production is the increased incidence of homosexuality within the population. I say this because a large percentage of couples who would want (and need) to use this technology to have children of their own are homosexual couples. The genetics of homosexuality is not clear, however I do believe there is a strong consensus that there is at least a genetic component to homosexuality. So if we accept that as fact then will we be artificially increasing the genetic traits that makes one homosexual? Usually these genes are not passed on (at least not by both parents), but now they would be. I find this very interesting to say the least and wonder what the outcomes (if any) would arise. The same could also be said of infertile couples. Could the genetics that makes one infertile eventually be mute, given our own advances in technology?


  4. Another thing to ponder (albeit a bit science fiction-y), is that if we can create functional sperm in a dish, is there no longer an absolute requirement for the male species? I think that we are going to be able to make functional sperm before we can make an artificial womb that can carry a living human from fertilization to birth. So until we can make an artificial womb, there will be always be an absolute requirement for the female. However, if you can take a biopsy of a female and can reprogram it to make 23X sperm then, there is no longer a requirement for males. Pretty scary when you think about all the implications of creating germ cells in vitro has on our species and society in general.


  5. Just another viewpoint. Why does this have to be only for humans?
    I want to use this technology to make gametes from Northern White Rhinos.
    There are only 5 left on the planet, and we have iPSCs from a couple of them so far and hope to reprogram 12 from frozen skin fibroblasts. This is better than cloning because by mixing and matching individuals, the genetic diversity could be greatly increased.


    • I admire what you are doing, Jeanne. It seems like a great possible approach for other severely endangered species.


  6. Preservation & De-Extinction are noble pursuits and I applaud those involved in trying to protect or reverse the loss of species that we can assist or bring back so long as they can survive in a protected natural habitat today.

    Here’s a good TEDx video on the topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gqpErbFnbiY

    Personally I don’t believe it’s ethical to clone humans in any way shape or form and should be explicitly banned in those countries that haven’t written specific laws on that aspect of the science.

    Genetic corrections and therapeutic use of pluripotent cells derived from in-vitro science should be separated from any debate on the human cloning issue. It’s a very very different purpose for which both science and patients need to see positive developments. We should not let it get caught up in often detrimental positioning which results in sound bite media reporting that stalls progress when people are suffering.

    I appreciate the technology basis is similar but one must respect the science for it’s positive attributes in supporting progress without inhibiting the sector by creating too much doubt and second guessing of the intent & mandate of the medical scientific & regulatory community. That goes IMO for clinically proven safe cellular medicine also – irrespective of the variability of the efficacy outcomes.

    Perhaps generations to come will view all this differently and believe science can and should be allowed free reign to recreate nature’s laws but I prefer to see science proactively assist within the context of what has been defined in biology already rather than force it to conform to our will or consider it their sole domain.

    At least we should first have a clearer picture of how it all works, including our consciousness, before we use this science for other reasons other than treating disease & alleviating suffering.

    Cheers

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