Childless couples who are incapable of producing their own sex cells may soon find hope in having biological children with a treatment that takes advantage of advances in stem cell technology.

Scientists from the U.K have successfully converted skin cells into "primordial germ cells" which can later develop into mature sperm and eggs. The breakthrough research could pave way for producing eggs and sperm cells using a person's skin, a process that may help infertile couples who are unable to produce their own sex cells to have children of their own via in vitro fertilization (IVF).

Researchers said that skin cells taken from women can only be used to make eggs because their skin does not have the Y chromosome. Current knowledge likewise suggests that the male skin's is unlikely to be converted into eggs.

For their study published in the journal Cell on Dec. 24, Azim Surani, from the University of Cambridge in the U.K, and colleagues successfully created early-stage sex cells, or gametes, by culturing human embryonic stem cells for about a week under strictly-controlled condition. During this period, the researchers added so called growth factors to ensure the cells develop in the right direction.

By following this procedure, the researchers converted skin tissue of adults into early stage sperm and eggs, a feat that could one day make it possible to use sex cells in IVF treatment that genetically matches that of the patient's. The researchers likewise discovered that a gene dubbed SOX17 played a crucial role for turning stem cells into primordial germ cells, which came as a surprise because the equivalent of the gene in mice did not exhibit such a role.

The laboratory-made cells could potentially grow into mature sperm and eggs but the researchers will have to inject the cells into the ovaries or testes of mouse to see if these could fully develop into animals.

The researchers said that their study could shed more light on ageing and cancer because it involved stripping the primordial germ cells of chemicals believed to be responsible for epigenetic changes that can be caused by lifestyle factors such as smoking, bad diet and other lifestyle related factors.

"The erasure of epigenetic information ensures that most, if not all, epigenetic mutations are erased, which promotes 'rejuvenation' of the lineage and allows it to give rise to endless generations," Surani said. "These mechanisms are of wider interest towards understanding age-related diseases."

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