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Scientists in Germany have managed to coax stem cells drawn from bone marrow to grow into immature sperm cells. The team says if these so-called spermatagonial cells can be matured, the work would have massive implications for fertility treatments.

The research team isolated mesenchymal stem cells from samples of bone marrow donated by male volunteers. This is a type of cell which has previously been induced to grow into other body tissue, such as muscle.

Next, these mesenchynmal cells were cultured in the lab and grown into male reproductive cells, called "germ cells". Genetic markers revealed the presence of spermatagonial stem cells, an early phase of the male germ cell development.

Spermatagonial cells are found in the human testes, and in most men these would develop into mature, functional sperm cells. This is the first time this kind of cell has been artificially produced.

But important as the breakthrough is, researchers are cautioning against wild street parties and other unrestrained celebration.

For one thing, proposed legislation in the UK would ban using artificially created cells in fertility treatments. And for another, the work is still at a very early stage.

Even the research team leader, Professor Karim Nayernia, formerly of the University of Göttingen but now of the North-east England Stem Cell Institute (NESCI), counsels caution.

He said that before he could say that the work has potential applications in terms of fertility treatments in humans, there would need to be a significant investment of research time, within an appropriate social and ethical framework.

Professor Nayernia said: "We're very excited about this discovery, particularly as our earlier work in mice suggests that we could develop this work even further.

"Our next goal is to see if we can get the spermatagonial stem cells to progress to mature sperm in the laboratory and this should take around three to five years of experiments."

The work, a joint project between the Medical School of Hannover and the University of Göttingen, is published in the April 13 2007 issue of the journal Reproduction: Gamete Biology. ®

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