Sperm or egg from any cell? It’s Called Abortion and It Holds Huge Promise and Peril: Shots

A clinician prepares cells for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, the treatment of infertility. In the future, it could be joined by abortion, gametogenesis in vitro, a new process that could transform any cell first into a stem cell and then into a sperm or egg.

Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

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Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

Sperm or egg from any cell? It's Called Abortion and It Holds Huge Promise and Peril: Shots

A clinician prepares cells for in vitro fertilization, or IVF, the treatment of infertility. In the future, it could be joined by abortion, gametogenesis in vitro, a new process that could transform any cell first into a stem cell and then into a sperm or egg.

Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

It’s a Wednesday morning at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in downtown Washington, DC, and Dr. Eli Adashi is opening an unprecedented gathering: it’s titled “In-Vitro Derived Human Gametes as a Reproductive Technology”.

This is the academy’s first workshop to explore in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG, which involves custom-making human eggs and sperm in the lab from any cell in a person’s body.

“It’s about to materialize,” says Brown University reproductive biology specialist Adashi. “And IVF will probably never be the same again.”

Over the next three days, dozens of scientists, bioethicists, physicians and others describe the latest scientific advances in abortion and explore the potentially wide range of social, ethical, moral, legal and regulatory ramifications of the emerging technology. Hundreds more are attending the workshop remotely.

“The implications here are huge,” says Alana Cattapan, who studies reproductive health issues at the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Realizing the breakthrough for humans is probably still years away, but excitement about it among scientists is growing.

Healthy abortion mice so far

Japanese scientists describe how they have already perfected abortion in mice. The researchers used tail cells from adult mice to create induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, then coaxed those iPS cells into becoming mouse sperm and eggs. They even used these sperm and eggs to make embryos and implanted them into the wombs of female mice, resulting in seemingly healthy baby mice.

“We are in the process of translating these technologies into humans,” says Mitinori Saitou of Kyoto University, speaking to the group via Zoom.

In fact, Saito says he’s pretty far down that road. He transformed human blood cells into iPS cells and used these iPS cells to create very primitive human eggs. Others created primitive human sperm this way. Neither sperm nor eggs are developed enough to make embryos or babies. But scientists around the world are working intensively on this.

“I was really impressed with all the data we’ve seen here and how quickly this field is changing,” says Dr. Hugh Taylor, a reproductive health specialist at Yale School of Medicine. “It makes me confident that it’s not a question of whether this will be available for clinical practice, but just a question of when.”

“Changing Life” for Infertility

Next, workshop participants, who met in late April, explore the implications of abortion if the technology were to ever become a reality for humans.

“It could be life-changing for individuals to build the family they dream of through abortion,” says Andrea Braverman, who studies infertility at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Abortion would allow infertile women and men to have children with their own DNA instead of genes from sperm and eggs or donors. The same is true for women of any age, making the biological clock irrelevant.

But that, says Braverman, raises many questions.

“Yeah, it’s great to be able to not have to worry as a woman that 40 is the cliff we’re falling from,” she says. “But on the other hand: what are the implications for families? For children whose parents are older? I always think of the first day of moving in in the 80s.”

Abortion could also allow homosexual and trans couples to have babies genetically linked to both partners.

“We, too, could point fingers at our kids and say, ‘He’s got your eyes and my nose,’ in a way that I think a lot of queer people are coveting,” says Katherine Kraschel, who studies the issues reproductive health at Yale Law School.

But Kraschel also fears it could undermine acceptance of gay people raising children not genetically related to them through adoption or using other people’s sperm and eggs.

“To the extent that abortion replaces the sperm and egg markets, concerns about a rollback are, I think, really justified,” she says.

Provocative possibilities

Another theoretical possibility is “solo abortion” — singles having “uni-babies” — babies with the genes of only one person, says Dr. Paula Amato, professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health. & Science University in Portland.

“In theory, you could reproduce with yourself. And the resulting child would be 100 percent related to you,” says Amato. “You could do it if you wanted to.”

She warns, however, that it can increase the risk of genetic problems in offspring.

At the same time, abortion DNA could be obtained anywhere a single cell could be found, says Stanford bioethicist Henry Greely.

This raises a long list of other provocative possibilities, he says, including “90-year-old genetic mothers, 9-year-old genetic mothers, 9-month-old fetuses who become genetic parents, people who have been dead for three years whose the cells were saved which become parents.”

People could even potentially steal celebrity DNA from, say, a haircut to make babies, he says.

“One law that we absolutely need is to make sure people can’t become genetic parents without their knowledge or consent,” Greely says.

Throughout the meeting, researchers and bioethicists warned that the ability to create an unlimited supply of abortion embryos – combined with new gene-editing techniques – could accelerate the power to eradicate unwanted genes. This could help eradicate terrible genetic diseases, but also bring “designer babies” even closer to reality.

“The desire to genetically modify the future generation in a hunt for a supposedly perfect race, a perfect baby, a perfect future generation is not science fiction,” says Amrita Pande, professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town. Town in South Africa. “ABR, when used with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should be of concern to all of us.”

Abortion is probably still at least years away – and may never happen, note several participants. There are still significant technical hurdles to overcome and questions about whether abortion could ever be done safely, several experts warned repeatedly during the workshop.

Nevertheless, the Food and Drug Administration is already exploring the implications of abortion, according to Dr. Peter Marks, a senior FDA official.

“This is an important technology that we are very interested in helping advance,” says Marks.

But Marks notes that Congress currently prohibits the FDA from even considering any proposal involving genetically manipulated human embryos.

“It scares our lawyers,” Marks says. “It makes them uncomfortable in that space.”

But if abortion remains banned in the United States, Marks and others warn that abortion clinics could easily spring up in other countries with looser regulations, creating a new form of medical tourism that raises even more ethical concerns. This includes the exploitation of women as surrogate mothers.

“Does abortion really increase human well-being? Panda asks. “Whose well-being does it increase?

Others agree.

“The door to this space is where so much is unstable,” says Michelle Goodwin, director of the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at the University of California, Irvine. “So many ethical questions still need to be unpacked.”


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