The Orchid in the Arctic

Imagine taking a tiny skin biopsy from the arm of a man who, even while you are taking it (which can’t be pleasant) offers you a warm, reassuring smile. For this man, getting poked and prodded is nothing—he is happy enough just to be alive and breathing. A second chance at life after surviving cancer and its exhaustive therapy puts things into perspective.
The biopsy doesn’t bother him at all, as he really wants to be a father and you, by doing this, can help him achieve this lifelong goal. How? By turning those skin cells into sperm with his DNA inside…and all in a dish. A complex dish. And then, using those sperm with current reproductive technology, his wife will conceive their child. And you will get a holiday card with a short but heartfelt note every year for the rest of your life.
Is this reality? No. At least not yet. But this past week, I presented a paper at our international fertility meetings in Denver that suggests that this is more like a workable vision than a pipedream.
In this research paper, we revealed that we were able to isolate, maintain and grow in a dish a support cell that is critically important for normal sperm production in all mammals. These particularly squeamish and elusive cells, called Sertoli cells, are the “nurse” cells of the testicle and provide total environmental support for early testis germ line stem cells to develop into sperm. Think of a seed trying to grow into a plant without nurturing soil. It’s just not gonna happen.
For 30 years, scientists have grown Sertoli cells from other animals in a dish, but human Sertoli cells have been elusive to date. Like trying to grow orchids in the arctic cold. What made this research successful was thinking about this cell differently than we had been. Adding a dash of stem cell biology also helped.
Stem cell biology has taught us that if you take cells out of their normal “niche” or home, they behave differently. Put a Sertoli cell into the testis with all of its friends and the things it calls home around it and it will stop dividing. “Terminally differentiate” in medspeak. Take it away from home and put it in a dish instead and low and behold, it continues to grow and divide and duplicate itself. And although it may be lonely away from its niche, it can now be used to help us build an artificial testicle to treat male infertility, study how sperm are made, and to test the toxicity of new drugs without using animals.
So that’s what the Smiling Man is smiling about. His skin cells will be converted to stem cells that will be converted to sperm in an artificial testicle in a dish. We now have the soil and the seed. Stay tuned as we work on the water and sunlight to turn this seed into a breathtaking orchid.