Infertility Treatment with Stem Cells is Unlikely

Because several laboratories have managed to differentiate embryonic stem cells into cells that look very much like human eggs and sperm, many have predicted that infertility will be treated with stem cell treatments (see Volarevic V, et al., Biomed Res Int. 2014;2014:507234). However, new work from the University of Gothenburg and Karolinska Institute has cast doubt on this hope.

At about 24 days of life, large, spherical sex cells are recognizable among the endodermal cells of the umbilical vesicle close to the allantois. These cells are the primordial germ cells and they are the progenitor cells of the sperm in men and eggs in women. As the embryo folds during about the late 4th week, the dorsal portion of the umbilical vesicle is incorporated into the embryo. This incorporation of the umbilical vesicle occur concurrently with the migration of these primordial germ cells along the dorsal mesentery of the hindgut to the gonadal ridges. During the 6th week of life, the primordial germ cells enter the underlying mesenchyme and are incorporated into the gonadal cords. Primordial germ cell migration is mainly regulated by three genes: Stella, Fragilis, and BMP-4.

PGC migration

These primordial germ cells divide as they migrate, and by five months of gestation, embryonic ovaries contain about six to seven million oogonia. Most of these oogonia experience cell death before birth, but the remaining oogonia begin meiosis toward the end of gestation. At this time, the oogonia are called primary oocytes. Meiosis is arrested in prophase of the first meiotic division, and this is the same stage at which spermatogenesis in the male is blocked. Primary oocytes decrease in number throughout a woman’s life. The ovaries of a newborn girl contain about two million primary oocytes and these are all the gametes she will ever have. Each primary oocyte is contained within a hollow ball of cells called the ovarian follicle. By the time a woman reaches puberty, that number of primary oocytes has been reduced to 400,000. Only about 400 of these cells will ovulate during a woman’s reproductive years. The rest will die by means of programmed cell death. Once all the primary oocytes are gone, ovulation stops and the woman undergoes menopause.

Kui Liu from the University of Gothenburg said: “Ever since 2004, the studies on stem cell research and infertility have been surrounded by hype. There has been a great amount of media interest in this, and the message has been that the treatment of infertility with stem cells is about to happen. However, many researchers, including my research group, have tried to replicate these studies and not succeeded. This creates uncertainty about whether it is all possible to create new eggs with the help of stem cells.”

In collaboration with Outi-Hovatta’s laboratory at the Karolinska Institute and Jan-Åke Gustafsson’ research team at the university of Houston in the US, Lui’s research team carried out experiments on mice that failed to demonstrate that functional gametes could be formed from pluripotent stem cells. Essentially, the only gametes that could that the female mice had were the ones they were born with.

In Liu’s opinion, fertility clinics should place their attention on using the eggs that women still have in order to treat infertility.


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Professor of Biochemistry at Spring Arbor University (SAU) in Spring Arbor, MI. Have been at SAU since 1999. Author of The Stem Cell Epistles. Before that I was a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA (1997-1999), and Sussex University, Falmer, UK (1994-1997). I studied Cell and Developmental Biology at UC Irvine (PhD 1994), and Microbiology at UC Davis (MA 1986, BS 1984).