Women are born with a complement of egg cells that must last throughout life. The ability to isolate stem cells from which eggs could be cultivated would help not only with fertility but also with biologists' understanding of how drugs and nutrition affect the egg cells.
The new research, by a team led by the biologist Jonathan L. Tilly, depends on a special protein found to mark the surface of reproductive cells like eggs and sperm. Using a cell-sorting machine that can separate out the marked cells, the team obtained reproductive cells from mouse ovaries and showed that the cells would generate viable egg cells that could be fertilized and produce embryos.
They then applied the same method to human ovaries donated by women at the Saitama Medical Center in Japan who were undergoing sex reassignment because of a gender identity disorder. As with the mice, the team was able to retrieve reproductive cells that produced immature egg cells when grown in the laboratory. The egg cells, when injected into mice, generated follicles, the ovarian structure in which eggs are formed, as well as mature eggs, some of which had a single set of chromosomes, a signature of eggs and sperm. The results were published online Sunday by the journal Nature Medicine.
Image: Human cell cultures, via Shutterstock.