Generating Eggs, Sperm, and Embryos: Can Ethics Keep Up?

Advances in stem cell biology are leading to artificially generated eggs, sperm, and embryos. These new techniques have already worked with mice. See “From Stem Cells to Eggs to Mice” for more on that.Presentationx Most experts think it’s just a matter of time before these techniques are applied to human cells. Someday it may be possible to start with ordinary cells, convert them to stem cells, then produce eggs and sperm to create new, artificially generated embryos. Can ethics keep up?

A recent journal article in Science Translational Medicine is a great start. The article reviews the technical advances and then lays out five major challenges for ethics and public policy. They start by asking if we in the US even have the necessary regulatory structures in place. The UK seems to be more prepared in this regard, but given that the most important advances are occurring in China, one wonders about policy and regulation around the globe. Who will say when we know enough to use this new technology safely to create a human embryo for implantation, or if that time ever comes?

To get to safety, researchers will have to refine the science. That leads to the article’s second concern–“the generation and likely destruction of large numbers of embryos from stem cell-derived gametes. This practice raises religious and secular objections to embryo creation and destruction.” This concern alone may stop this research dead in its tracks, at least in the US.

The third concern has to do with opening a new pathway to human germline modification, including human enhancement. Because these artificially generated embryos pass through the stem cell stage in a laboratory, they can easily be modified genetically. If embryos were created from modified cells, they would have germline genetic modifications, perhaps to avoid disease or perhaps to provide some sort of genetic enhancement. A couple might generate not just a dozen or so embryos in vitro but a hundred or more, and then select the “best” in the lot. The authors worry about “parents selecting for their ‘ideal’ child.”

Fourth, what’s to prevent someone from getting cells from an unsuspecting celebrity or super athlete, generating eggs or sperm from the unwary donor, and then creating an embryo without the consent of the famous biological mom or dad? Almost no legal framework exists to prevent this from happening.

Finally, the authors are worried that this technology, together with others like surrogacy, will change what’s possible in terms of parenting.  They write that the “most disruptive impact might be on our very conception of parentage.”  For example, the new technology could make it possible for one person to be the sole genetic parent of a child, or for three or more to share the role.

The article, “Disruptive Reproductive Technologies,” is authored by I. Glenn Cohen, George Q. Daley, and Eli Y. Adahi.  It appeared on January 11, 2017 and is available free to read by the journal, Science Translational Medicine.  


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