October 14, 2010

Researchers create artificial human ovary

By Father Thomas Berg *
A recent study published in the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics described the scientific manufacture of an artificial human ovary which in turn produced a viable human egg.  Begun from real human ovarian tissue and grown on a prefab laboratory matrix, the artificial ovary was hailed as a major breakthrough.  As the authors observed, the experiment is proof of principle that an artificial ovary "can be created with self-assembled human theca and granulosa cell micro tissues," and can produce viable human eggs for reproductive and other purposes. The researchers went on to affirm that "theoretically, in vitro maturation of primordial [eggs] promises to yield the greatest number of fertilizable [eggs] for future reproduction."

It should be noted that history has already seen one gravely disordered use of related biotechnology on the occasion of an American medical first: a pregnancy achieved through a sibling to sibling ovarian transplant -- in this case, between identical twin sisters. The moral disorder in this case should be apparent: ovaries, because of their intrinsic link to human life and specific human identity (both of the woman and her eventual offspring) are not on a par with other non-vital body parts which could be reasonably donated to a person in need. Notwithstanding the genetic proximity of identical twins, the twin sister's ovary is nonetheless bound up in her own identity; her eggs are her eggs, with their unique genetic signature. Consequently, procreation here occurs with the egg of another woman, thus involving a third party in the procreation process and rendering grave harm to the marital unity of the infertile sister and her husband.
By the same token, we have also witnessed an amazing, wonderful and morally licit use of related technology.  In 2005, Stinne Holm Bergholdt had six strips of her own ovarian tissue returned to and transplanted onto her own ovaries. She had the tissue frozen before starting chemotherapy treatments which can cause sometimes irreversible damage on human ovaries, rendering a woman infertile. Since then, Stinne has had two children. 

As with most biotech developments, the achievement of artificial human ovaries presents possible benefits, but also an alarming potential for scientific depravity. On the positive side, the artificial ovary could assist the study of the early genesis of human eggs and offer a new research tool for the study of anomalies in the human reproductive process.  But beyond this potentially good application, the prospect of artificial ovaries constitutes a watershed opportunity for researchers to go mainstream with the dark project of human cloning.

Up until now, the lack of human eggs -- or oocytes -- has hampered attempts at successful human cloning. At the present state of the art, approximately 60 to 100 oocytes would be required to produce a single cloned human embryo. Artificial ovaries could supply in spades the heretofore dearth of eggs available for research. IVF clinics commonly discard many of the eggs retrieved for fertility treatments because they are too immature. The new technology would allow for such eggs to be matured in vitro and consequently hugely increase the supply of available eggs.

As reported three years ago, some of the remaining hurdles to successful human cloning have already been surmounted. Readers will recall the announcement, published in the journal Nature in November, 2007, that Oregon-based scientist Shoukhrat Mitalipov successfully cloned monkey embryos and derived embryonic stem cells from them.

Mitalipov's success with monkey embryo cloning provides the theoretical foundation for scientists to pursue so-called "therapeutic" cloning in humans. Embryonic stem cells derived from a cloned human embryo, because they would be genetically identical to a patient, could be used in potential treatments without prompting an immune rejection response -- overcoming one of the greatest hurdles for researching and developing therapeutic applications for human embryonic stem cells.

In a recent poll published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 76 percent of Americans express their opposition to human cloning for research purposes. While reassuring, such a statistic hardly constitutes a solid assurance that Americans are truly poised to effectively prohibit dark projects, such as human cloning, that would render the use of mass quantities of human embryos for biomedical research common-place. Such is the prospect we face. It will take the sustained efforts of pro-life advocates at the grass roots level to translate adverse attitudes toward embryo-destructive research into an effective and national legislative prohibition of such research.

Father Thomas Berg is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie). More of Fr. Berg’s publications are available at www.fatherberg.com.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.


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