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Bay Area team developing artificial testicle

What if science could replicate a critical piece of the male anatomy?
For some men, the dream of becoming a father is difficult, or even impossible, because of causes ranging from chemotherapy to genetic factors. But what if science could replicate a critical piece of the male anatomy?

"Maybe we can create sperm from nothing," says Paul Turek, M.D.

Dr. Turek is a male reproductive specialist in San Francisco and is part of a research group that's working on the equivalent of an artificial testicle. He says the project began with an animal model.

"We used skin cells, turned them into stem cells, and then put them in a mouse testicle, but you really can't grow a man's sperm in a mouse testicle and use it," Turek explained.

He says the solution was to build their own incubator, mimicking the biology of the male reproductive system. It's housed at a San Francisco start-up, Mandalmed.

Director Connie John, Ph.D., says the device provides an artificial environment made up of several different kinds of human cells and other biologic components that provide support for sperm development.

"The process of spermatogenesis takes 60 days," said John. "So it's a very long process. We have to have a way that we can maintain these cells in a very healthy way."

In a recent trial, the team was able to keep the stem cells alive for 42 days, roughly two-thirds of the normal sperm development cycle. They say early evidence suggests that the artificial environment also influenced the cells to begin the transformation towards sperm cells.

"And they went along the pathway towards sperm by gene expression. So we can tell what a sperm is by the genes it expresses, by the clothes it wears. And it was putting on the right clothes," said Turek.

Turek believes the technology could someday be used in tandem with in-vitro fertilization. While creating human sperm outside the body is still many years away, he says the progress so far may give birth to the dream of creating functioning sperm using a patient's own skin cells.
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health technology medical research San Francisco
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