The Future of Assisted Reproduction: Will It Be That Brave New World?

In the last year I joined the American Society for Reproductive Medicine (ASRM).   One fringe benefit is that I get a subscription to Fertility and Sterility, which is their bi-weekly journal.   I’ve written about this journal before, and as I said then, the vast majority of it is beyond my comprehension.   The primary audience is medical/scientific.  

Anyway, the latest issue has a “Editor’s Corner” piece by a very well-known ART physician who just turned 100–Dr. Howard Jones, Jr.  It’s called “Seven roads traveled well and seven to be traveled more” and it is a look back on the last 30 years of progress in IVF as well as a look forward at where we will be/should be/are going.   (I’m sorry that there doesn’t seem to be a way to link to this for folks.)   The fifth and sixth roads to be traveled caught my attention and I thought I’d mention them here.  

Dr. Jones says “[t]h fifth road seeks to improve not the quantity but the quality of our IVF offspring.”   It’s hardly surprising that the emphasis on “quality” summons up visions of eugenics–a topic discussed here not so very long ago.  

But it turns out that what Dr. Jones has in mind is something that, for me, is not easily typed as eugenics.   Would we, for example, screen out genetic material that carries with it known increased risks of breast or ovarian cancer in favor of genetic material from the same person that does not carry with it the increased risk?    That is improving the quality of the offspring, but it is not the sort of eugenics that disturbs me.  

Dr. Jones also goes on to discuss the possibility of prior-to-pregnancy screening–something else that came up here a while ago.   Here, too, you could see the specter of selective breeding and eugenics, or you could see a reasonable effort to take into account known risks of genetic defects.   (I’ve written about this a bit before, too.) 

Then there is the sixth road.   That’s developing viable gametes from somatic cells.   That means allowing gametes to be created from our own ordinary cells.   At least part of the point here (at least as Dr. Jones states it) would be to eliminate the need for third-party gametes.   For any different sex couple, each person could certainly provide somatic cells and, if you could use those to make gametes, then you’d have what you need to move forward.  

I’m no expert, but I think this would theoretically work for same-sex couples, too.   Once you can create gametes and proceed via IVF, I’m not sure you need to make the sperm/egg distinction.   (As far as I can see, it would not work for a person who wanted to be a single parent, and thus, Dr. Jones might overstate the case when he says there’d be no need for third-party gametes.)  

To be clear, there’s no time frame here.  I don’t think we’re close or anything.  But it’s an intriguing possibility.  And I wonder, for those who are committed to DNA as the means of defining parenthood, what it might mean.   It seems to me it resolves all those questions about what the child knows about genetic lineage and all that, doesn’t it?


9 responses to “The Future of Assisted Reproduction: Will It Be That Brave New World?

  1. Julie
    Can you possibly dumb down the word “gametes” for me? My belief is that people should be held accountable for knowing and being known to their offspring and for supporting them to adulthood. I believe that preventing a person from doing that should be considered illegal and that trying to be anonymous should be considered abandonment. If a doctor could make a gamete(?) from the body of an infertile person, then would not the result be back to the basics of human reproduction just as it is now? Would’nt that really be then a cure for infertility?

    Now but wait….are we talking about dropping the blue eyes of a lesbian into some brown eyed man’s sperm to impregnate her partner or are we talking about a fertilization process that involves only the two of them in exactly equal parts only without the need for sperm? As long as nobody else is related to the baby but the two people making the baby it seems not a horrible goal. It does seem that in the end its just human reproduction. Just like IVF and artificial insemination is just human reproduction. I’ll never never never see the third party as anything other than smoke and mirrors.

    • For now, at least, eggs and sperm are gametes. (Or I suppose I could say that gametes are either an egg or sperm.) Gametes have 1/2 the DNA of ordinary cells and when combined you get the full complement of DNA and a fertilized egg that will begin the process of division. I’m not sure what distinguishes an egg from sperm apart from the fact that men normally produce sperm and women produce eggs and that sperm have a transportation system attached. I think in addition eggs have materials necessary to begin and sustain the process of division.

      What would it mean to make gametes from ordinary somatic cells–say skin cells? I don’t think you’d actually build eggs and/or sperm. I think what you’d be doing is creating the 1/2 DNA part of the gamete. I theory these could be combined as sperm and eggs are combined. And just as a person’s sperm/eggs contain 23 chromosomes drawn from the 46 each person has, so would these newly created things.

      Remember, this isn’t possible now. But it sounds like it is on someone’s to-do list and I suppose that makes it likely that in time we will face the problem. It would seem to some a cure for infertility as anyone with skin cells (or any other type of cells) could produce gametes that could be used in reproduction.

      • Fun fact: the word “gamete” comes from “gamos”, Greek for marriage. They are the body parts that actually marry. Gregor Mendel coined the word, apparently.

  2. This is what I’ve been blogging about for over six years now. Haven’t you visited my website by now?

    Yes, if we could create gametes from somatic cells, especially gametes of the other sex, that would replace the need for third-party gametes for many same-sex couples and infertile couples, but there’d be other different and more worrisome ethical issues. First of all it isn’t known to be safe to make gametes from stem cells, so most couples would continue to use third party gametes, plus lots of people choose third party gametes to get better genes, taller and more intelligent, and have already rejected their own genes. Another reason is to not have to share custody with anyone, least of all a lazy boyfriend or greedy girlfriend. So it wouldn’t replace third party gametes.

    And it would cost a tremendous amount of money and use lots of resources, to do something entirely unnecessary: no one is suffering or in pain from a lack of offspring, there is no need that justifies the cost or danger. And having two male progenitors or two female progenitors denies people the right to a common human origin of a mother and a father and having two fathers denies them the chance to have a father too, because two fathers would compete and negate the significance of each other as fathers. And it would open the door to all forms of genetic engineering and eugenics, requiring huge government funding and regulation and denigrating human dignity and the source of our equality.

    And there are differences between the genes we get from our female progenitor and male progenitor: they have complementary genomic imprinting, so that when they join together, only one copy of a gene is “on”, the other is methylated to be “off” in the meiosis process, or maturation process, no one really knows exactly. So getting a viable sperm from a woman that could fertilize another woman’s egg is very difficult, they haven’t been successful in animals yet. It would probably involve maturing the developing gamete in the hormonal environment of an ovary or testicle. There’d be no way of knowing if the process would work properly until the person has reached old age and reproduced themselves, and that’s too late. It’s wrong to put someone through a live as an experimental subject.

    • I don’t think many people choose third-party gametes in order to get better genes. People tend to value having a genetic link fairly highly and thus are willing to undergo and/or pay for expensive techniques (like ICSI) in order to use their own DNA. Beyond that, it does seem that much of this is in the realm of science fiction, at least for the moment. And the possiblity of unintended consequences and/or unanticipated results is real.

  3. Its all so confusing. I just want the child to know exactly who their relatives are you know?

    Say about freezing. Are kids that are frozen turning out – you know – ok? Is that something we even should have tried? To me that just seems like too big a risk out the gate. Freezer burn and all. I don’t want to be crude about it, but if you think of what happens to food when its frozen, its just not as good as when its fresh, but then, its dead. And since we’re talking about it….never mind that gets us way off track.

  4. See now that was funny but I’m sure our host won’t think so and I’m ashamed to admit that I laughed.

    I was just wondering why being frozen either as sperm, egg or embryo does not damage the physical and menatl health of the resulting child. It does do something to other organic material – freezing does, it does I think even remove things like nutrients? I’m just wondering how the law ever allowed doctors to play around with freezing components or precursers to human lfe seeing as if it did not work out, they’d be damagin actual people who would not have been in a position to give consent to being experimented upon.

    • The effects of freezing/thawing have been pretty well studied, particularly for sperm. I don’t think anyone has ever identified damage to physical/mental health. This kind of experimentation is done first with gametes from animals, which I know raises its own questions. But of course, whether the research is ethical has been very widely debated for a long time. That debate continues, but tends to focus more on experiementation with things like cloning, etc.

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