New Research Could Change the Landscape of Human Reproduction : Consider This from NPR One of the most cutting-edge and controversial fields of biomedical research right now is the quest to create eggs and sperm in the lab for anyone with their own DNA. And now, private companies have jumped into the race to revolutionize the way humans reproduce.

In vitro gametogenesis, or IVG, would enable infertile women and men to have children with their own DNA instead of genes from the sperm and eggs of donors. It would also provide queer couples the opportunity to have children biologically related to both partners.

NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports on the excitement and concerns this new technology has fueled.

In participating regions, you'll also hear a local news segment to help you make sense of what's going on in your community.

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New Research Could Change the Landscape of Human Reproduction

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JEREMY: Hi. My name is Jeremy, and I was not supposed to be here. Both of my parents were infertile. They were not supposed to be able to have children.


Like millions of adults, Jeremy's parents struggled to conceive a baby. He's one of the listeners who left messages for NPR member station WAMU's 1A program for an episode about fertility. Those who left messages only use their first names.

JEREMY: They started trying in the late '60s, and then about 10 years later, they conceived, and I'm the result. They tried a lot of things that had many doctors tell them that they were not supposed to be able to have kids. But they persevered and kept trying, and here I am.

CHANG: There are several options currently available if you are trying to have a baby, including fertility medication, sperm or egg donors, adoption and in vitro fertilization, or IVF, which is a medical procedure where an egg is fertilized by sperm in a lab dish. But IVF can take a toll on the people undergoing that treatment. Melissa Cummings is a physical therapist who also spoke to WAMU. She went through 10 years of fertility treatments.

MELISSA CUMMINGS: You don't really understand until you've been through it just how much stress it causes, how much disappointment, how much the cycle of - the monthly cycle of hoping to get pregnant and then not getting pregnant - how much that emotional up and down wears on all your personal relationships.

CHANG: Treatments can be a lot emotionally, physically, financially, and they're not guaranteed to work. But earlier this year, a group of scientists presented their research that could change the landscape of IVF.


ELI ADASHI: Welcome, everybody, to the National Academy of Medicine Workshop.

CHANG: Dr. Eli Adashi from Brown University opened the academy's first gathering to explore the latest scientific developments of something known as in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG. This process involves making human eggs and sperm in the laboratory from any cell in a person's body.

ADASHI: It is on the precipice of materialization, and IVF will probably never be the same.

CHANG: If successful, this process could help those with fertility issues and also give queer couples the opportunity to have a baby that's genetically related to both parents. Catherine Marshall (ph) studies reproductive health issues at Yale University.


CATHERINE MARSHALL: We, too, could point to our children and say, he has your eyes and my nose, in a way that is something that I think many queer people covet.

CHANG: Also at this workshop was Dr. Hugh Taylor from Yale University, who summarized what the group had learned so far.

HUGH TAYLOR: I've been really impressed with all the data that we've seen and just how quickly this field is evolving, and it makes me confident that it's not a matter of if this will be available for clinical practice, but just a matter of when.

CHANG: Well, that when could be sooner than we think. As private companies race to accelerate and commercialize IVG. Coming up, we hear from the startups working to bring IVG into the world and from experts who have concerns about the social and ethical implications of this technology.


CHANG: It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Tuesday, July 18.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. One of the most cutting-edge and controversial fields of biomedical research right now is the quest to create eggs and sperm in the lab for anyone with their own DNA. And now private companies have jumped into the race to revolutionize the way humans reproduce. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports on what these startups are up to.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It's a cloudy day in Berkeley, Calif. I turn onto a gritty side street near the San Francisco Bay and ring the bell on a low concrete building with big frosted glass doors.


STEIN: I'm Rob Stein from NPR.

MATT KRISILOFF: Hey, I'm Matt Krisiloff. Nice to meet you.

STEIN: Nice to meet you, too. Matt Krisiloff is one of the founders of a company called Conception.

KRISILOFF: So let me find them real quick and then...

STEIN: We walk through a big open space filled with computer stations to find a quiet room.

What are you guys trying to do? What's Conception all about?

KRISILOFF: Yeah. So basically, we're trying to turn a type of stem cell called an induced pluripotent stem cell into a human egg, ultimately, with the goal, if it's safe to do it, for fertility purposes.

STEIN: And why?

KRISILOFF: Really opens the door if you can create eggs to be able to help people have children that otherwise don't have options right now.

STEIN: Like women whose eggs are too old, enabling them to have their own genetically related kids at any age because induced pluripotent stem cells can be made from just a single cell from anyone's skin or blood. So these lab-grown eggs would have all of their DNA. It's called in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG.

KRISILOFF: My personal biggest interest in it is that it could allow same-sex couples to be able to have biological children together as well. Yeah. I'm gay, and it's something that got me so personally interested in this in the first place.

STEIN: Same goes for one of Krisiloff's co-founders, Pablo Hurtado.

PABLO HURTADO: There is something intrinsic - sharing a life that is half me and half my husband. I don't have the capacity right now, and I am devoting my life to try to change that.

STEIN: Because IVG could create eggs from one of his cells that could make a baby with sperm from his partner, vice versa for lesbian couples. Same goes for trans couples. And they say the company's gotten closer to making IVG a reality than anyone else. To show me what they've done and how, Bianka Seres, their third co-founder takes me into their lab.

BIANKA SERES: It's quite loud in here, with all the machines running.

STEIN: The big lab's packed with specialized equipment. Dozens of scientists wearing white lab coats are busy conducting experiments. Hurtado opens an incubator and pulls out a clear, round lab dish.

HURTADO: These are primordial germ-cell-like cells.

STEIN: Stem cells that the company made from human blood cells and then coaxed into developing into cells that could become either sperm or eggs.

HURTADO: They already decided that they are going to become an egg or a sperm, but they haven't decided yet that they are going to become an egg. And that's something that we do later on.

STEIN: Instead of clumping together in colonies like stem cells, each primordial germ-cell-like cell is visibly much more distinct.

HURTADO: So in this case, that you can see each individual cell as a circle.

STEIN: Can I look through the microscope to see what they look like?

HURTADO: Yeah. Please look through the microscope.

STEIN: Oh, wow. Yeah. I see them. Once they start to become something else, start to become a little bit more independent or something?

SERES: Yeah. They are maturing into becoming more independent. And, in fact, fun fact is egg cells are truly independent, and they actually will need to become one cell within that follicle.

STEIN: A follicle - the part of a woman's ovaries that cradles each egg into maturity.


STEIN: Hurtado quickly returns the cells to the incubator and pulls out a rectangular dish.

HURTADO: These are some of our mini ovaries. These are a few weeks old now.

STEIN: The mini ovaries are combinations of cells the company made to nurture the primordial germ-cell-like cells into their next step of development. Another microscope projects what's in that dish onto a screen.

HURTADO: Hopefully what you can appreciate here is you can see our mini ovary, and then you can see a lot of dots that are really red fluorescent. Each of those cells is a germ cell.

STEIN: A germ cell, a very immature human egg cell.

HURTADO: I like to call it a Christmas tree because it's like all the lights make people happy when they see something like this.

STEIN: But this is sort of like a little factory to make human eggs for women who are infertile or gay men who want to have babies.

HURTADO: Yeah. Yeah. It's really exciting to be working on a technology that can change the life of millions of humans.

STEIN: Wow. That's amazing.

HURTADO: Yeah. Yeah.

STEIN: Within a year, Krisiloff hopes they'll prove the follicles in those mini ovaries can mature the immature eggs into fully developed eggs.

KRISILOFF: And so, as far as we know, we're the first in the world that have been able to do this. So it's really exciting because we think it means we're quite close to being able to have proof-of-concept human eggs instead of this abstract idea that's really just an imaginative science fiction idea that really indicates that, hey, this technology is actually closer than people think.

STEIN: Now, the company's only released a few details about their experiments, so independent scientists can't validate their claims, and some are skeptical. Krisiloff acknowledges that a lot more research is needed to prove the company could produce viable eggs that would be safe to use. But he's confident they're on the cusp of success. Already, the work is creating a lot of excitement, but also a lot of concerns.

MARCY DARNOVSKY: This could take us into a kind of a "Gattaca" world.

STEIN: Marcy Darnovsky runs the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley. She says combined with new gene-editing techniques, IVG could fuel all kinds of dystopian scenarios, including designer babies.

DARNOVSKY: Combining IVG and genome editing and commercialization, you've really got kind of a toxic stew to create people who are supposedly biologically superior to others. We don't want to pave the road toward any kind of future that looks anything like that.

STEIN: But for another perspective, I travel about an hour south to talk with Stanford University bioethicist Hank Greely.

HANK GREELY: Have a seat.

STEIN: Thank you.

GREELY: I'm a fan of the IVG idea. I think it offers the possibility for millions of couples who desperately want to have kids that are genetically half one, half the other who can't do that now to have those children.

STEIN: That said, Greely also worries about commercial pressures pushing IVG too fast.

GREELY: Rob, I live in Silicon Valley, where the motto is move fast and break things. Of course it worries me. Happily, the FDA does not want you to move fast and break things. And the FDA has a lot of power. I'm confident the FDA will use that power because we don't think babies are like iPhones.

STEIN: Greely acknowledges that there are lots of possibilities that raise thorny questions, like using cells from children, the elderly, even dead people to make babies, or cells stolen from celebrities to make babies without their consent. A person could even make babies with nothing but their own DNA.

GREELY: Part of me says, you know, why worry about these wild scenarios? Who in the world would do that? And then I think there are 8 billion people in the world. And, you know, there are some rich megalomaniacs out there - we won't name names - who I can imagine might think that was cool.

STEIN: Back at Conception, Matt Krisiloff and his colleagues acknowledged the concerns, but they told me they would welcome government regulation.

KRISILOFF: Can it go down pathways where, you know, people try and do weird, like, designer aspects or much more out-there things? Yeah. I mean, I think that's a fair thing to worry about. And there's all sorts of gray areas that society really needs to figure out. But, yeah, opening this door for so many more people is - including, you know, me and Pablo - a really cool thing. If it could lead to so many people being able to have families and children being able to have lives. I just think that's a really beautiful thing.


CHANG: That was NPR's Rob Stein reporting from Berkeley, Calif. It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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