Scientists close to breakthrough that could revolutionize human reproduction: NPR

Researchers are getting closer to the mass production of eggs and sperm in the laboratory from ordinary human cells. The technique could provide new ways to treat infertility, but also open a Pandora’s box.


We are close to a revolution in the way human beings reproduce. Scientists are on the verge of creating human eggs and sperm in the lab with any person’s genes. What does this mean for humanity? This is NPR health correspondent Rob Stein.


ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It’s a Wednesday morning at the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in downtown Washington, DC

ELI ADASHI: Welcome everyone to the workshop of the National Academy of Medicine.

STEIN: Dr. Eli Adashi of Brown University opens the Academy’s first gathering to explore the latest scientific developments and the complex social implications of something known as in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG, which involves making human eggs and sperm in the laboratory from any cell in a person’s body.

ADASHI: It’s about to materialize, and IVF will probably never be the same again.

STEIN: Japanese scientists describe how they’ve already done this in mice, by coaxing adult mouse tail cells into what are called induced pluripotent stem cells, or IPS cells, and then coaxing these cells to become sperm and mouse 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. Mitinori Saitou joins the workshop via Zoom from Kyoto University.

MITINORI SAITOU: We are in the process of translating these technologies into humans.

STEIN: Actually, Saito says he’s already pretty far down that path. He transformed human blood cells into IPS cells and then used them to create very primitive human eggs. Others have created primitive human sperm this way. They are not developed enough to make embryos or babies, but they are working on it.

SAITOU: Alright. Thank you so much.


HUGH TAYLOR: Well, hello. Welcome to day #2. Let’s get started.

STEIN: Dr. Hugh Taylor of Yale University summarizes what the group has learned so far.

TAYLOR: I’ve been really impressed with all the data we’ve seen here today and how quickly this field is changing. And that makes me confident that it’s not a question of whether it will be available for clinical practice, but just a question of when.

STEIN: With that, Taylor opens a discussion about how abortion could help people. Andrea Braverman studies infertility at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

ANDREA BRAVERMAN: It could obviously change the lives of individuals to build that family they dream of through abortion.

STEIN: Because infertile women and men could have children with their own DNA instead of someone else’s sperm and eggs. The same is true for women of any age, making the biological clock irrelevant. But Braverman says it raises a lot of questions.

BRAVERMAN: Yeah, it’s great to be able to not have to worry as a woman that 40 is the cliff we’re falling from. 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 the 80s.

STEIN: Abortion could also allow gay and trans couples to have babies genetically linked to both partners. Katherine Kraschel studies reproductive health issues at Yale.

KATHERINE KRASCHEL: We, too, could point to our children and say he has your eyes and my nose in a way that I think is coveted by many gay people.

STEIN: But Kraschel fears it will undermine the acceptance of gay people as parents of children not genetically related to them through adoption or by using other people’s sperm and eggs.

KRASCHEL: To the extent that IVG replaces the sperm and egg markets, the concerns about a rollback, I think, are really justified.

STEIN: But that’s not all. Dr. Paula Amato of Oregon Health and Science University in Portland points out that what she calls solo abortion could allow single people to have unibabies, babies with the genes of a single person.

PAULA AMATO: In theory, you could reproduce with yourself, and the resulting child would be 100% related to you. You could do it if you wanted to.

STEIN: At the same time, abortion DNA could come from anywhere where a single cell could be found. Stanford bioethicist Hank Greely raises some of the provocative possibilities.

HANK GREELY: 90-year-old genetic mothers, 9-year-old genetic mothers, 6-month-old fetuses who become genetic parents, people who have been dead for three years whose cells have been saved to become parents.

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

GREELY: One law that we absolutely need is to make sure people can’t become genetic parents without their knowledge or consent.

STEIN: 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 boost the power to eradicate unwanted genes. This could eradicate genetic diseases, but also bring custom babies even closer to reality. Amrita Pande is a professor of sociology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

AMRITA PANDE: 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. IVG, when used with gene-editing tools like CRISPR, should be of concern to all of us.

STEIN: Worried about cravings to eliminate unwanted traits like blindness and deafness. Now everyone agrees that abortion is probably years away and may never happen. There are still huge technical hurdles and questions about whether it could ever be done safely. But Dr. Peter Marks, a senior Food and Drug Administration official, told the group that the agency was already exploring the implications of abortion.

PETER MARKS: This is an important technology that we are very keen to help advance.

STEIN: But, Marks notes, Congress currently prohibits the FDA from even considering any proposal that would involve genetically manipulated human embryos.

MARKS: It scares our lawyers, okay? It makes them uncomfortable in that space.

STEIN: 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 .

Rob Stein, NPR News, Washington.


INSKEEP: Wow, that’s just the beginning of this topic. And Rob will tell us more about the implications of abortion in future reports.


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