Birth of a new age

Science is rewriting the rules for how babies are conceived and born, writes Áilín Quinlan.

IMAGINE a world where a ‘solo parent ’ — male or female — can have a baby alone, where embryos are gestated in artificial wombs and where sex is not required for conception.

This is not a radical vision says British biologist and science writer Aarathi Prasad.

Her new book about technological advances in reproduction challenges everything we take for granted — not just about the relationship between the sexes, but about the formation of family as we know it.

In Like A Virgin; How Science is Re-designing the Rules of Sex, Prasad conceives of a world where the ultimate solo parent is a woman who needs nothing but her own stem cells and an artificial Y chromosome to produce eggs and sperm — no male input required.

Or she might use two of her eggs to create a child, using advanced technology to convert one of the eggs into a pseudo-sperm in order to fertilise herself — it’s already been done with mice in Japan.

And should an artificial human womb become a reality — one has already been created for sharks — such a woman might forego pregnancy, allowing scientists to set the ideal conditions for her foetus’s development and continue working just like a father-to-be, until her baby is born.

Prasad is unfazed — such technology would, she says, “be the great biological and social equaliser, a truly new way of thinking about sex. The question is not if it will happen, but when,” she says, pointing out the same scientific advances could also allow men to make eggs and sperm from their stem cells — and gay couples to create children from both their DNA.

“Scientifically, IVF is already circumventing sex. It’s not revolutionary,” she insists.

The new technologies would free women from the “difficult choices” they’re currently forced to make because of the ever-ticking biological clock, she points out.

In fact it’s already begun — in 2007 a synthetic chromosome was assembled using lab-made chemicals. The pioneering biologist behind this was Dr Craig Venter, whose company Celera Genomics helped unravel the sequence of the human genome, in parallel with the Human Genome Project in 2003.

Scientists, Prasad points out, have also created an artificial womb for sharks — though, she admits, an artificial womb suitable for a human embryo would, of its nature, have to be extremely complex.

“An artificial womb would essentially be an incubator that spans the whole length of pregnancy,” she explains.

In some cases, she believes, it could be a better alternative for a foetus — a human womb, by its nature, forces some babies to experience nicotine, drugs and alcohol.

“The natural womb is not always the best for women because whatever the mother takes in, the child takes in.”

Scientists in Japan and the US are working on the possibility of creating a human womb. One reproductive researcher, Hung-Ching Liu, has already had some notable successes.

Meanwhile, eggs have already been produced in the lab from both female and male embryonic stem cell lines, says Prasad.

However, female embryonic stem cells can only give rise to eggs, so without the artificial Y chromosome, women, who only have two X chromosomes could only ever make artificial eggs. Men, with both an X and Y chromosome, could make eggs or sperm.

So, theoretically at least, a couple like Elton John and Ben Furnish could conceive their child without resorting to an egg donor.

Even so, an embryo could conceivably be created from the mixed DNA of two females, Prasad believes.

Some years ago, Japanese scientists created a fatherless mouse from one mature and one immature egg.

They manipulated the DNA of the egg’s chromosomes so that they were able to use them as if they’d come from a sperm.

Named Kaguya, after a mythical princess whose true parentage was unknown, the mouse was not only the first mammal to be born without a father — she was also the first animal in history to be born to two mothers.

Within three years the scientists had honed the technology to produce more fatherless mice.

These mice, all female — since they only have sex chromosomes from eggs — have since been able to reproduce with males and produce fertile offspring.

Making human babies using Kaguya-style genetic tinkering should be possible, says Prasad — though it will only yield female offspring without the availability of a Y chromosome.

However, synthetic Y chromosome has already been assembled using lab-made chemicals.

“The concept would change the way families are made up, by giving lesbian and gay couples the opportunity to have their own genetic family,” explains Prasad, a presenter with Channel 4 and the BBC.

However, she acknowledges, there are significant regulatory and ethical barriers to be surmounted.

“There has to be medical boards and testing, but the most important thing is that the baby is healthy.”

However, in the Irish context at least, any discussion around such processes would have to take into account a plethora of complex considerations.

Such research could not only spark a major ethical debate and potentially make for some grisly results, according to Dr Deirdre Madden, senior lecturer in Law at UCC. There is no Government legislation monitoring such work, and, outside of certain hospitals or universities, no ethics regulation.

“You might end up creating embryos and foetuses that could be deformed because the techniques have not been perfected,” she says.

There is no legislation in Ireland at the moment that would prevent someone from cloning, Madden points out. The technology Prasad refers to involves cell nucleus replacement and could thus be perceived as a form of cloning technology.

In fact, there is “no regulation in Ireland at all on fertility technologies”.

The only deterrent, she says, would be Irish Medical Council guidelines which ban doctors from participating in creating new forms of life solely for experimental purposes or the Irish Medicines Board which licenses the provision of treatment by fertility clinics.

However, while doctors would be precluded by the Irish Medical Council, some scientists would not be similarly restricted.

Scientists working in an academic institution like UCC, or within the HSE, or hospital system, for example, would require research ethics clearance, but a “maverick scientist” who wanted to escape strict regulation in another country and set up a private clinic in Ireland, would face no such investigations.

“There is a need to have strong research ethics government to make sure there is some monitoring of what scientists are doing,” says Madden.

Regulation in this country, she explains, only kicks in at the treatment stage, when the results of research are used to provide a form of treatment.

Prasad — a single mum with a 10-year-old daughter, Sita-Tara — wouldn’t shy away from such technologies.

“This would be an option for people who already had children — for some people it might be a way of giving an only child a sibling. My daughter is an only child and I would consider it to give her a sibling.”

Of course it will create controversy and give rise to all sorts of ethical and religious dilemmas, she says, but there’s precedent for all of that too.

Think of the furore over the world’s first test-tube baby in 1978, Louise Brown, or the cloning of Dolly the Sheep.

“The whole issue of modern fertility is incredibly complex and the law has not caught up with it in many places,” she says. “However, whenever there’s a story in the paper about a new fertility technology the scientists always get a lot of phone calls because people are simply very interested in new fertility technologies.

“It will be like IVF — first the outcry, then the recognition that it has a benefit and then they don’t think twice about it. If there are benefits and it’s not causing harm, people will support it eventually.”

¦ Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex is published by Oneworld, €16

REPRODUCTIVE TECHNOLOGY ONLY FOR WEALTHY

REPRODUCTIVE technology as outlined by Prasad is theoretically feasible and would probably be sought-after by people experiencing problems with fertility — but would only ever be available to a tiny minority of super-wealthy people, believes Dr David Walsh consultant gynaecologist and medical director of the Sims Fertility Clinic.

“The cost of this would be phenomenal — you’re looking at a tiny subset of people who could afford it because it would be a very expensive technology.”

It would also face gigantic regulatory restrictions, he believes, and it would be decades before such a technology would become available in Ireland.

“You can’t imagine the substantial regulatory restrictions around, for example an application to start up an Artificial Womb Programme,” he says. “If a clinic wanted to start programme like this, they’d have to apply for a licence, provide a portfolio of work to show that it was safe, effective and clinically useful. That would trigger an inspection on the technology. I think you’re talking years for this.”

In view of the fact that many Irish clinics are only now applying for licences for processes such as vitrification and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis and screening, all which have been available elsewhere in the world for the past 10-15 years, Irish couples interested in Prasad’s concept of a brave new world will have a long wait.

Dr Walsh sounded a cautious note to those who might be prepared to prematurely trust science with the gestation of a human baby.


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