Is Every Skin Cell Sacred?


In Monty Python's 1983 movie, The Meaning Of Life, appears the hilarious musicial number, "Every Sperm is Sacred." (If your office door is closed, treat yourself to the video of it here.) In the words of the song's refrain:

Every sperm is sacred.
Every sperm is great.
If a sperm is wasted,
God gets quite irate.

Does the song need an update? Researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles report that they have been able to turn skin cells into sperm and eggs. As the UCLA press explains:

…researchers have reprogrammed human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells into the cells that eventually become eggs and sperm, possibly opening the door for new treatments for infertility using patient-specific cells.

The iPS cells were coaxed into forming germ line precursor cells which include genetic material that may be passed on to a child. The study appears today in the early online edition of the peer-reviewed journal Stem Cells.

"This finding could be important for people who are rendered infertile through disease or injury. We may, one day, be able to replace the germ cells that are lost," said Amander Clark, a Broad Stem Cell Research Center scientist and senior author of the study. "And these germ cells would be specific and genetically related to that patient."

Theoretically, an infertile patient's skin cells, for example, could be taken and reprogrammed into iPS cells, which, like embryonic stem cells, have the ability to become every cell type in the human body. Those cells could then be transformed into germ line precursor cells that would eventually become eggs and sperm. Clark cautioned, however, that scientists are still many years from using these cells in patients to treat infertility. There is still much to be learned about the process of making high quality germ cells in the lab.

Of course, Monty Python is spoofing Roman Catholic doctrine. Nevertheless, the Vatican holds that the release of sperm outside of the "procreative act" is morally suspect. Or as the Catechism notes:

"Both the Magisterium of the Church, in the course of a constant tradition, and the moral sense of the faithful have been in no doubt and have firmly maintained that masturbation is an intrinsically and gravely disordered action."

In any case, it's pretty clear that even if it becomes possible to safely produce embryos from healthy human sperm and eggs derived from a person's skin cells, that would violate the prohibitions set out in the Vatican's newest bioethics instruction, Dignitas Personae.