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Can women have children throughout their lives, even post menopause?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Researchers grow oocytes from human ovarian stem cells

A new study shows a woman's ovarian stem cells might make it possible to produce eggs throughout life. The ovaries that stop working after menopause and from disease retain stem cells that might make it possible for women who are not fertile produce babies.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, and previously reported by EmaxHealth's Dr. Robin Wullfson, could pave the way for new treatments.

Researchers harvested stem cells that produce "competent eggs" from the ovaries of adult mice in 2004.

They found that once the cells were harvested they could be expanded for months, spontaneously, producing 35 to 50 micrometer cells known as oocytes from which ovum develop.

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For the new study they took stem cells from women’s ovaries, marked them with fluorescent material and put them in human ovarian tissue grafted under the skin of the mice. The fluorescence allowed them to watch them grow.

Jonathan L. Tilly, PhD, a reproductive biologist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston said in a press release, "We've isolated, essentially, the female equivalent of the stem cells that we know exist in men that actively make new sperm. So having these cells now isolated, I think, opens up a lot of opportunities to consider that we simply couldn't fathom before."

Tilly says, just like men who produce sperm their entire life, women may no longer have to be..."faced with the idea that there's a fixed bank account of eggs at birth with only withdrawals and no deposits."

Whether or not stem cells from women’s ovaries will produce human babies remains to be seen, however. The hope is that by using stem cells to produce oocytes that turn into eggs could someday lead to new fertility treatments, though the notion is somewhat controversial. A woman's ovarian stem cell tissue could be stored and, theoretically, be used later to reproduce.

Nature Medicine (2012): doi:10.1038/nm.2669
Oocyte formation by mitotically active germ cells purified from ovaries of reproductive-age women
Yvonne A R White, et al.
February 26, 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons