A new procedure that could allow fertility clinics to make sperm and eggs from people’s skin may lead to “embryo farming” on a massive scale and drive parents to have only “ideal” future children, researchers warn.
US legal and medical specialists say the procedure – known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) – has only been demonstrated in mice. But, they argue, the field is progressing so fast that its dramatic impact on society must be considered now.
“We try not to take a position on these issues except to point out that before too long we may well be facing them, and we might do well to start the conversation now,” said Eli Adashi, professor of medical science at Brown University, Rhode Island.
The creation of sperm and eggs from other tissues has become possible through advances in which scientists have learned to re-programme adult cells into a younger, more versatile state, and then grow them into functioning sex cells. In October, Japanese scientists announced the first birth of mice from eggs made with their parent’s skin.
The technology is still in its infancy and it’s illegal to use it in humans. But Adashi, Glenn Cohen, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and George Daley, dean of Harvard Medical School, wrote in the journal Science Translational Medicine that it may be possible to make human eggs and sperm from skin “in the not too distant future”.
IVG could offer fresh hope for infertile people, including those unable to have children after cancer treatment. Because chemotherapy can destroy reproductive cells, patients sometimes store their sperm or ovarian tissue to use once they have recovered.
With IVG it may be possible to collect skin cells from a patient and turn them into healthy sperm or eggs for use in IVF later. The procedure could transform IVF by making egg donors obsolete and replacing the hormonal stimulation that is used to make women produce eggs.
IVG throws up fresh legal and ethical questions. If the procedure became simple and inexpensive, clinics could manufacture almost limitless supplies of sperm, eggs and embryos.
“IVG might raise the spectre of ‘embryo farming’ on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,” the researchers write.
For a couple having fertility treatment, IVG could mean doctors choosing from a pool of hundreds of embryos, rather than half a dozen or so. That could intensify “concerns about parents selecting their ‘ideal’ future child”, the authors write.
Cohen said he and his colleagues wanted to start a debate about the potential ramifications of using the procedure in humans.
In one extreme example described by Cohen, skin cells might be collected from Brad Pitt’s hotel bathtub and used to make sperm for insemination.
“Should the law criminalise such an action? If it takes place, should the law consider the source of the skin cells to be a legal parent to the child, or should it distinguish between an individual’s genetic and legal parentage?” the researchers ask in the article.
In another hypothetical situation, IVG could be used to make sperm and eggs from more than two people. These could then be combined to make children with three or more genetic parents. The case raises serious questions about the rights and responsibilities of each contributing parent, the authors write.
“When new technologies come out, the law is often accused of playing catch-up,” Cohen said. “Far better to think and discuss on the front end, even if some of this never comes to pass, than scramble on the back end to gap-fill, in my humble opinion.”
“With science and medicine hurtling forward at breakneck speed, the rapid transformation of reproductive and regenerative medicine may surprise us,” the authors conclude. “Before the inevitable, society will be well advised to strike and maintain a vigorous public conversation on the ethical challenges of IVG.”