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Growing new eggs from stem cells may sound like sci-fi, but the future is coming a lot sooner than you may think.

While men may continue to produce millions of new sperm cells every day until the day they die, women are born with all the eggs they'll ever have. When that ovarian reserve runs out and a woman reaches menopause, there's simply no way for her to have a biological child. Women who want to offer themselves the best possible chance of having a biological child can either have kids when they are young, freeze their eggs for later use, or rely on an egg donor to get pregnant.

Until very, very recently, this statement was so apparent to everybody — scientific background or not — that nobody would dispute it. Though scientific advances in fertility, specifically IVF, made all kinds of previously futuristic-sounding possibilities reality, the female biological clock wasn't something that could be beaten. Until now. That's right: until now.

 

In 2004, biologist John Tilly and his team discovered egg precursor cells, a type of stem cell, in the outer cortex of mouse ovaries. Their subsequent study, published in the journal Nature, reached an amazing conclusion. The previously firmly-held belief that "young girls are given a bank account at birth that you can no longer deposit eggs to, just withdraw from", was, Tilly pointed out, "no longer true".

Tilly and his colleagues discovered that egg precursor cells in mice could be stimulated in a lab setting to produce mature eggs that, once fertilized, could result in baby mice. Could the same be true for humans?

Obtaining healthy ovarian tissue to experiment on proved to be impossible in the US, but Tilly found out that some Japanese patients who had undergone gender reassignment surgery had donated their ovaries to science. He and his team were now ready for the next step — the revolutionary attempt to isolate egg stem cells in human females. The team did locate those cells, but found they were so rare that it wasn't a surprise nobody had found them before. With experimentation on humans being unethical and illegal, the scientfic team injected human egg stem cells into small pieces of ovarian tissue and grafted them into mice. Within a fortnight, the cells had developed into immature eggs that looked just the same as those already naturally present in the tissue. 

Tilly said: "Our discovery of these cells in women indicates what we might need to rethink how the ovaries in women fail with age, by accounting for these cells as an important variable."

This amazing set of discoveries could soon have equally amazing results. OvaPrime, which the company OvaScience plans to make available internationally within the year, hopes to remove women's egg precursor cells, place them into the central part of the ovary, allowing them to grow into immature egg cells that could go on to help make a baby. OvaPrime is seeking to turn back time, and to make the female biological clock obsolete. Created from stem cells, such eggs wouldn't be subject to the normal aging process, thereby making chromosomal abnormalities much less of a concern. 

OvaScience has already began implementing the so-called "Augment" treatment, in which mitochondrial stem cell tissue is added to regular eggs retrieved for IVF procedures. The results have been interesting: 26 percent of those women under 40 who had already experienced failed IVF attempts got pregnant. The results for those women over 41 weren't nearly as good at 5.3 percent, but scientists say this can be explained by the fact that preexisting egg cells are injected with mitochondrial tissue, rather than new egg cells being created from scratch, as OvaPrime will do.

The treatment isn't available quite yet, but watch this space. OvaPrime could easily turn out to be one of the most significant scientific adavances ever, allowing women more control than ever over their reproductive lives.

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