The first IVF baby was born 30 years ago. What about the next 30 years?
Thirty years ago, on 25 July 1978, the world’s
first IVF baby was born in Britain. Louise Brown is now married and has a
conceived naturally child of her own. It was a landmark day in our relationship
with technology. Louise was to be the first of 4 million children conceived in
a Petri dish and transferred to a womb – usually, but not always, their
mother’s. From a controversial solution to infertility, in vitro fertilisation
swiftly grew into an industry of its own and opened the door to other even more
controversial developments, like genetic engineering and stem cell research.
To mark the occasion, the world’s leading science
journal, Nature, has asked experts to
forecast what reproductive technology will look like in another 30 years. Both
the predictions and Nature’s analysis are fascinating reading. They suggest
that even more dramatic bioethical challenges lie ahead.
Several scientists believe that the recent
emergence of induced pluripotent stem cells – cells which have all the
malleability of embryonic stem cells but which are created without destroying
embryos – will transform their field. As iPS cells can theoretically morph into
any cell in the body, it should be possible to transform them into “artificial”
sperm and eggs. This means that anyone can have be the progenitor (the words
mother and father hardly seem appropriate) of a child – whether they are six
months old or 100 years old. Furthermore, eggs and sperm will no longer be in
short supply. Lab technicians will be able to make thousands of them. “They
would become objects and would be used as objects,” says Davor Solter, of the
Institute of Medical Biology in Singapore.
Artificial wombs are another possibility, some
scientists believe. “You could have as many or as few progeny as you want,”
muses Dr Solter. However, this could be a double-edged sword. As IVF techniques
improve and as the age of viability of unborn children falls, it may be
possible to keep aborted babies alive in vats. It might even become unlawful
not to do it. An unsettling forecast, to say the least.
Rapid improvements in genetic screening and in knowledge of the human genome mean that
designer babies will be possible. Parents could choose embryos to give them
their best chance for a healthy and successful life. But the sheer complexity
of making such choices will be daunting for parents.
Several scientists had intriguing words about IVF.
Alastair Sutcliffe, of University College London, points out that very little
is known about the long-term effects of IVF. What if their health in middle and
old age is poor? Nature’s editorial calls for large registries which track the
health of IVF children.
What about the
ethics of such challenging research? Is this forecast thrilling or
threatening? Nature is
characteristically contradictory when discussing limits on scientific endeavour:
“nothing is sacred in human biology — and researchers should ensure that
nothing is diminished about human reproduction by starting it in the lab”. But
if nothing is sacred, what is the problem with a “diminished” approach to
procreation? Louise Brown’s birthday raises more questions than it answers. ~
Nature, July 17
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