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On the Front Lines of Reproductive Research

Reproduction, a process that has from the beginning of time formed the very basis of life itself, is undergoing a profoundly magical change that may make it possible for two women to reproduce without needing male sperm and for two men to reproduce with a surrogate without needing her eggs. The implications are enormous.

The newly developed reproductive method, called “in vitro gametogenesis” or IVG, could shake the fertility world to its core, by making it possible to bypass a person’s existing eggs – and create brand new ones, as well as sperm, by using his or her own skin cells. The eggs and sperm would then be implanted in a uterus.

That may sound like a fantasy tale – or sci-fi blockbuster movie – but researchers in at least six countries, including the U.S., are working on it.

Scientists in Japan have already scored the first victory: they successfully created mice pups in a lab, using mature mice cells.

Replicating the process in humans will take many more steps and be more difficult. “People are a lot more complicated than mice,” Susan Solomon, chief executive of the New York Stem Cell Foundation, told the New York Times in an interview last year. “And we’ve often seen that the closer you get to something, the more obstacles you discover.”

But the foundation has been laid, and many scientists believe IVG could be available for human trials within the next two decades – and that hundreds of thousands of women could take advantage of it.

IVG would be the most recent miracle-of-birth method since in vitro fertilization (IVF) was introduced forty years ago.

In that process, an egg and sperm are combined outside the body and the resulting embryo is transferred to a uterus. IVF is taken for granted now, but it was criticized when it was introduced as being a gateway to babies being created in petri dishes and raised in government “hatcheries,” as Aldous Huxley wrote in his classic Brave New World. That dire prophecy hasn’t come true. Since the introduction of IVF, more than 6.5 million babies, beginning with Baby Louise Brown in Britain, have been born using that method.

Dr. Amander Clark, a UCLA stem cell biologist who is researching IVG and collaborating with scientists around the world, says, though, that IVG won’t replace IVF, because the complexity and cost may limit its use. Still, there are undoubtedly many prospective parents, especially two-women couples, who would welcome being able to have a child this way.

And there are other benefits as well. “IVG may be the only way a childhood cancer survivor would have the chance to become a parent when he or she grows up, given the risks of chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy induced-infertility,” Clark says.

Researchers are also using the knowledge they’ve learned in IVG studies to try to find ways to remove the risk of some inherited medical conditions such as Huntington’s disease and cystic fibrosis: In other words, IVG may be used eventually not only to begin life but to make life better.

We aren’t the only ones who could benefit from IVG. Endangered species of animals could also be saved by using the technology.

The death this year of Sudan, the last existing male northern white rhino, made headline because there are only three females left. As it is, a German research institute has a store of northern white rhino semen that save the species via IVF. But if no semen were available, IVG could work one day for the females.

But could IVG be used for evil as well as good?

One concern is that it might help to determine individual characteristics of children, such as eye color, height, and perhaps even intellect. A more sinister scenario has skin cells obtained from an unsuspecting individual and then surreptitiously used in a research setting to create babies. To combat those possibilities, Clark says that an international research consortium has already issued interim guidelines for IVG scientists. It’s highly likely that IVG will prove a boon to many, not a detriment.

In the meantime, the race is on among scientists to make this most futuristic way to become pregnant into a reality for those who never thought they could use their own cells to become pregnant.

And who knows what may be beyond even that?