The first human egg cells that have been grown entirely in the laboratory from stem cells could be fertilised later this year in a development that will revolutionise fertility treatment and might even lead to a reversal of the menopause in older women.
Scientists are about to request a licence from the UK fertility watchdog to fertilise the eggs as part of a series of tests to generate an unlimited supply of human eggs, a breakthrough that could help infertile women to have babies as well as making women as fertile in later life as men.
Producing human eggs from stem cells would also open up the possibility of replenishing the ovaries of older women so that they do not suffer the age-related health problems associated with the menopause, from osteoporosis to heart disease.
Some scientists are even suggesting the possibility of producing an “elixir of youth” for women, where the menopause is eradicated and older women will retain the health they enjoyed when younger.
Researchers at Edinburgh University are working with a team from Harvard Medical School in Boston to be the first in the world to produce mature human eggs from stem cells isolated from human ovarian tissue.
The scientists want to fertilise the laboratory-grown egg cells with human sperm to prove that they are viable. Any resulting embryos will be studied for up to 14 days - the legal limit - to see if they are normal.
These early embryos will not be transplanted into a woman's womb because they will be deemed experimental material, but will either be frozen or allowed to perish.
“We hope to apply for a research license to do the fertilisation of the in vitro grown oocytes within the IVF unit at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary,” Dr Telfer said.
“Could the fertilisation take place this year? Yes, absolutely,” she said.
Professor Richard Anderson of the MRC Centre for Reproductive Health, who will be in charge of the clinical aspects of the work, said: “The aim will be to demonstrate that the eggs that we’ve generated in vitro are competent to form embryos and that’s the best test that an egg is an egg,”
Generating an unlimited supply of human eggs and the prospect of reversing the menopause was made possible by a series of breakthroughs led by Professor Jonathan Tilly of Harvard.