Nature News on the near future of reproduction

Monday, 28 July, 2008

A couple of weeks ago, Nature News published an article titled ‘Making babies: the next 30 years‘. It interviews a number of specialists in human reproductive technologies and outlines the predictions that they think are likely to arise in the next few decades. I’ve been waiting until I have some spare time to go through it, and now I have. This gives me the opportunity to also comment on other blogs who picked up this story.

The article

First up is Dave Solter, developmental biologist, who predicts that induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) with be cultured into human gametes (sperm and ova). This would mean that anybody who has skin will be able to be a genetic parent, whether they are just an embryo, a corpse or any stage in between. Given that the harvesting of eggs is a major issue in research and reproductive technology, this would be a major boon to the field. No need for women nor men – just grow the eggs and sperm yourself. It would also mean (Dave doesn’t mention this, but I think it is important) you could test that stability of genetic modifications over many generations in vitro within just a few years by ‘breeding’ human embryos. Dave also mentions that an artificial placenta, allowing for the culture of embryos past the blastocyst stage, may be likely.

Next is Alan Trounson, Australian IVF pioneer and now the director of California Institute for Reproductive Medicine. He seconds Dave Solter’s predictions (adding the possibility using embryonic stem cells derived from somatic cell nuclear transfer instead of iPSCs), but raises some cautionary issues. His other predictions include better gene therapy using genetic cassettes and low-cost IVF for the developing nation. Nothing special here.

Following him is Susannah Baruch, director of reproductive genetics at the Genetics and Public Policy Center at Johns Hopkins University. Her predictions mostly concern preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which she sees as not being a tool to make designer babies but just for gaining full genetic information about a child’s future. She also states that “The old-fashioned way [of reproducing] is cheaper and more fun and that won’t change in 30 years.” I agree, but the end result (the child) will be less reliable.

I’m not going to talk about what Alastair Sutcliffe, a paediatrician, said because it is just about long-term health of children conceived by this technology. Not really any predictions.

Scott Gelfand, director of the Ethics Center at Oklahoma State University, makes the sensible (in my view) prediction that medical technology will allow for the viability of foetuses born even up to 12 weeks of age, or even complete ectogenesis (artificial wombs, no human woman needed). Scott is on the ball, because he sees that this could dramatically affect the abortion debate. A conservative government could require all unwanted pregnancies be transfered into an artificial womb. This would essentially become the dividing line between pro-choice (woman’s control over her body) reasoning and “pro-abortion” (lack of rights for the foetus) reasoning. As I fall into the latter category, I should hope that these artificial wombs are not a tool for outlawing abortion.

Miodrag Stojkovic, stem-cell biologist, predicts that clones will become much easier to make if Dave’s predictions come true. With the requirements for cloning being up to hundreds of eggs, an excess derived from stem cells could allowing reproductive cloning to go ahead. Of course, she points out that reproductive cloning will not be very popular, as (almost) all incentives to clone could be satisfied by artificial gametes. And we won’t make clones for organs either, because we can probably just skip the clone and go straight to the organ (i.e. grow the whole organ from stem cells).

A cure for infertility is the core prediction of Zev Rosenwaks, director of the Center for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility in New York, who also seconds Dave’s predictions about making sperm and ova. This is good, because it puts choice as the core component of reproduction. No more God or Mother Nature choosing whether some people can have children or not.

Finally, Régine Sitruk-Ware, reproductive endocrinologist, looks at the flip side of the previous prediction – contraceptives. She points out that more reproductive research is on people’s choice to have a child and not people’s choice not to have children. She hopes for more effective contraceptives and non-hormonal versions (such as one that prevents sperm from entering the ovum), allowing yet more choice into the realm of reproduction.

The comments

“If a few power crazy experts decide to monopolize the special skills and determine to create thousands of children on their own terms and conditions, the world could be in trouble. I would not want to imagine the consequences. Would you?” -Tan Boon Tee

Given the cost (in time and money) of this idea, it would be easier for said crazy experts to just recruit young people to do whatever they wanted. Which is already what happens.

” It is scary. And i do not want to have a mother who is a hundred years old. Or a father. This is not the earth i want to live in.” – Michael Hoffmann

Get over it. These centenarians only be genetic parents, not gestational or social parents. And if they are healthy enough to be social parents, that will be thanks to life-extension research that will keep these centenarians as healthy as sexagenarians. And already grandparents raise children, but maybe Michael doesn’t like that either.

“I think this has gone too far. We are so keen on improving science investigation that we have lost sense of reality: we can improve nature but not oppose it. Nature is wise and it knows 60-year-old person shouldn’t have baby children, it knows that a mother is important for a baby during pregnacy and it knows is better for evolution genetic variability. I think most of these experiments make people less free because, why do not young partners have children? becase if a woman gets pregnant she’ll probably loose her job. Why do they want to experiment with embrios stem cells? becase they want some profit for all the frozen embrios of IVF. I would recommend to read “Brave New World” from Aldous Huxley so that you would understand my opinion.” – Marina Garci­a

Total bovine excrement here. Nature is not wise (how can it be? it has no brain). Women don’t lose their job for being pregnant (I think that’s illegal). And Brave New World, well that’s a new one? Go read Huxley’s Island – it has reproductive technology done right.

“However there must be some limit for this which I couldn’t found in some of the articles. Who will decide if someone can or can’t be born without mother? Who will claim such wrigth [sic]? Next, think about desingning a persons genome, as Susannah pointed in her article. While pointing there are no data to support the idea, the “genome designer” idea itself is capable to be understood by someone reading the article. Again, this is scary. Some ideas on the articles are beyond the scary, bordering de-humanization. To mention are human clonning and tissue donation. As if the human parts market in some places in this world didn’t required our attentions. Finally, what are we looking for when presenting this idea? Perfection? I can use Susannahs’ comments again: there are no perfection on us. And exactly this is what makes the human existence perfect giving us a path to follow. Why do we not search perfection in eliminating hungher on Earth, or counteracting the global warming?” – Nelson Jacomel Junior

There is nothing scary about designer genomes, and cloning is no more dehumanizing than IVF. The end result will be a human person, no different – no less human (not that this is important) – than any of us. Nelson’s only good point was his first part about whether governments will interfere with reproductive rights by mandating who can be born. They should never be allowed to. Undoubtedly some parent will need to request a child, and that parent could be male or female (we already allow single females to have children by sperm donation in most sensible parts of the world, so why not single males?).

“When we learn to correct and reprogram our DNA then we will have conquered ageing and disease and the problem of infertility would also disappear and all these proposed technologies would become obsolete.” – Richard Dawson

A sensible view, as anti-ageing research may indeed make some reproductive technologies less popular. But in the next few decades, it is still likely that these technologies will be developed and will be utilised.

“While I admit it is in the best interest of the patients involved to have a kid, plainly speaking aren’t we acting against “survival of the fittest”? Further, if nature (mother nature) wanted us to reproduce at the age of 100, it would have made it so. That nature imposed a reproductive age limit of ~45 for women should ring a bell.” – K Sivaraman

Holy FSM, another person who thinks that an inanimate process of evolution is more intelligent than the scientific community. Nature has a poor record of doing good (are there not natural disasters as well as man-made ones?), so I don’t see why we should be respecting what is natural. I think this is just a disguise for fear of change.

The blogosphere

A sensible view given here, at Genetic Future. Here are two key points:

“The point is not that we will never understand the genetic basis of complex traits – we will, at least to a pretty good approximation, given advanced tools and sufficiently large cohorts. The point is that even once we understand the genetics of complex traits perfectly, that won’t be enough to generate a “perfect baby” through embryo screening alone.”

“So it’s safe to say that there will be no perfect baby. Instead, the prospective parents will face a tough choice between embryo A, who will likely be tall, slim, smart and cancer-free but have a higher-than-average chance of bipolar, early-onset dementia, and infertility; embryo B, who will be a little shorter, dark-haired, probably fairly gregarious, resistant to coronary artery disease, susceptible to bowel cancer, hypertension and early deafness; embryo C, who will be of average intelligence, unlikely to suffer premature baldness, prone to mild obesity and diabetes, but not at a high risk of any of the other major common diseases; and embryos D-N, who present a similar panel of competing probabilities”

On the other hand, many blogs have perpetrated the distorted view started by the ignoramuses at FOXNews, that this will lead to pregnancy at 100:

Solter, writing in the journal Nature, claims that advancements over the next 30 years should make it possible for women at any age to give birth.”

No he didn’t! He claimed that “newborn children could have children and 100-year olds could have children” but he never said they would become pregnant and give birth. He was obviously implying that they would use a surrogate womb or an artificial womb. Having a child is not the same as bearing and birthing a child, but I guess I expect much for the traditionalist readers of FOXNews to realise that.


I’m a little dismayed that nobody predicted that gene therapy will become advanced and reliable enough to be used on embryos, ushering in the era of the designer baby. That would be my prediction.

Anyway, the issues brought up are good to consider, especially the idea of artificial wombs and artificial gametes. More choice, more reproductive freedom – can’t go wrong.


One comment

  1. i think people are way to uptight about this. it would be great to have an artificial womb. coming from a mother who went through hell and back just o have one child. there a millions of people who cannot have children each day and wish to adopt. so instead of going half way around the world why not adopt a child who was given up by a women who decided she rather have the child live and be adopted then killing it. Ive researched this as much as i could. there are almost no risks to this. the disease passed from mother to child will be no more. miscarriages and pre-term labor wont happen. when it comes to the playing god aspect. how? think about it. god would be 100% against abortion so if we were to find a solution to it and let a child live, then wouldnt that be the right thing to do? wouoldnt it be saving lives everyday not killing them. now i do believe that if a couple or even just a mother wants to adopt a child from this that there should be restrictions. like age i dont believe that a 80 year old women needs to adopt. or a women or man with aids should adopt just for the simple reason what happens when they die and the child is 2 years old type thing. and parents should be well screened before they are allowed to adopt just like any other adoption in America now. either way its a wonderful thing, and people need to lighten up.

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