A Brave New World of Human Reproduction

By David Warmflash | December 13, 2016 1:37 pm
(Credit: Shutterstock)

(Credit: Shutterstock)

Advances in reproductive technology may radically change the options we have for starting a family. We’re not too far from fundamentally redefining what it means to start a family.

Do you want to have children, but don’t have a partner? Do you want children with your partner, but it’s a same-sex relationship? Or perhaps you’re a woman who wants children without the burden of a 9-month pregnancy. You might opt for ectogenesis, or moving gestation to an artificial womb.

Here’s a glimpse of this brave new world of baby-making.

Ectogenesis and the Artificial Womb

In 1924, British physiologist and geneticist John Burdon Sanderson Haldane coined the term ectogenesis. Haldane was thinking of an artificial process in which development, from fertilization to birth, could occur outside of a woman’s body.

He described ectogenesis in a work called Daedalus, where he predicted that about 70 percent of human babies would be born this way by the year 2074. Today, 92 years after Daedalus, judging by the pace of neonatology, genetics and other areas of biomedicine, it appears that we’re on track to have an artificial uterus-placenta of some kind within Haldane’s predicted timeframe.

Thus far, the youngest surviving premature infants were born at gestational ages of 21 weeks, 5 days (weight 624 grams) and 21 weeks, 6 days (283 grams), respectively in 1987 and 2006. In recent years, a growing number of infants have survived after just 22 to 23 weeks gestation, but nobody has broken the age record, despite enormous technical advances in neonatal critical care.

The limit on prematurity has much to do with the lungs — they’re too fragile for even the gentlest ventilation techniques — and researchers are working on a device that diverts blood of the fetus/premature infant away from the lungs and oxygenates it. They are calling it an artificial placenta, because diverting fetal blood into the mother (where the blood gets oxygenated) is essentially what a natural placenta does. In April, researchers from the University of Michigan kept five extremely premature lambs alive for a week using a device that allowed for gas exchange without ventilation.

In a study published in May in the journal Nature, researchers showed that a fertilized human egg could develop without being implanted in a womb. The researchers terminated the experiment at 13 days gestation, not because there was a technical problem; rather, they arrested development due to an international agreement prohibiting experiments with human embryos older than two weeks.

Depending on how ethical discussions develop in the years to come, it’s plausible that somebody, somewhere will push human embryo development to extend time limits outside the womb. If the lung assist technology, plus other devices, also push the survival to increasingly younger gestational ages, the two limits will eventually meet. Development from egg to mature infant would feasibly be possible outside a natural womb.

We could imagine a future in which carrying a fetus inside your body will go the way of driving cars — a retro practice. Women who cannot carry a pregnancy for physical reasons and male gay couples could also benefit.

Reproductive Cloning

Therapeutic cloning refers to the creation an embryo with a genome matching that of a single individual. The embryo is not implanted in a womb to develop into a baby; instead, its development is arrested at a very early stage when it is a ball of identical cells, or a blastocyst. The cells are stem cells that can be used as regenerative medicine treatments in the person from whom the blastula or blastocyst was made.

Society, in general, seems more open to the idea of therapeutic cloning. But so far, the same cannot be said of reproductive cloning, where the embryo is implanted and brought to term. Someone might opt for reproductive cloning based purely on narcissism, but it also could be useful to someone with fertility problems when standard treatments do not work.

The most widely-used cloning strategy is called somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT). It’s a mouthful, but the name describes exactly what happens: A somatic cell is any cell in your body, other than a gamete cell (an egg or a sperm), specialized to function in particular tissues and contains your entire genome. In SCNT, the nucleus of a somatic cell is transferred to a donated egg cell whose own nucleus has been removed. The new egg cell can be triggered to act as a fertilized egg, producing a blastula whose cells are clones of the donor of the nucleus.

Thus, if a woman’s egg cells were destroyed by radiation therapy, for instance, or if she is postmenopausal and has no more eggs, it’s theoretically possible to make her a child using one of her somatic cells, say from her skin or stomach. We also might imagine a homosexual male couple opting for reproductive cloning through SCNT, or just a single male, or any other scenario that you could imagine in which a female parent is not available.

SCNT is how researchers at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland cloned Dolly the sheep from a genetically identical mother in the 1990s, but there are safety concerns surrounding the prospect of doing the same thing with humans. Dolly died prematurely of debilitating arthritic disease, which Roslin researchers do not think was related to the cloning. In fact, a recent study shows that Dolly’s offspring are, by all appearances, healthy sheep.

Four 8-year old Finn-Dorset clones born in July 2007 and derived from the mammary-gland cell line that gave rise to Dolly. (Credit: Sinclair et. al/ University of Nottingham)

Four 8-year old Finn-Dorset clones born in July 2007 and derived from the mammary-gland cell line that gave rise to Dolly. (Credit: Sinclair et. al/ University of Nottingham)

SCNT can ‘reprogram’ somatic cells — set them on a pathway to embryogenesis — by triggering epigenetic changes, modifications of the cell’s DNA that affects gene expression without changing the underlying genetic content. Animals created via SCNT maintain altered epigenetic patterns throughout life and many die in the womb, or are born with developmental defects. There’s concern that humans produced through reproductive cloning, even if healthy at birth, might be prone to health issues later in life –as occurred in the popular BBC America sci-fi TV series, Orphan Black.

We can make cloning work in different animals, even large mammals, but we don’t yet know enough about the cloning process to be certain it’s safe for humans. But there are some jazzy new tactics being researched. It’s early to predict whether any of them will be safer than SCNT, but the existence of multiple ways of doing something increases the chances that something will pan out.

New Technologies that Might Enable Reproductive Cloning

In a study published recently in Nature Communications, researchers from the University of Bath demonstrated that mouse eggs that were about to divide from a single cell stage into a two-cell stage retained the capability to reprogram sperm DNA.

Normally, this is something that happens earlier, during fertilization and that’s what leads to embryogenesis. Eggs beyond the fertilization stage become mitotic cells, they reproduce by dividing, rather than by fusing with other cells as gametes do. Skin cells, stomach cells, and all somatic cells are mitotic cells. If one type of mitotic cell –in this case a post-fertilization egg— can reprogram another type of cell –in this case a sperm— then all sorts of cell reprogramming scenarios should be possible.

In lieu of the somatic cell/egg combination characteristic of SCNT, cloning might be achieved combining somatic cells and sperm, two different somatic cell types, two different sperm, so by reprogramming a somatic cell without help of an egg or sperm.

There’s an important caveat: in the University of Bath experiments, the mechanism for the reprograming of sperm by post-mitotic eggs was epigenetic; the coiling DNA strands was switched from wrapping around one type of protein to another. As with SCNT, any type of cloning is going to involve messing around in some way with the epigenetics of the needed cells and the resulting child.

This means that we still have a lot to learn. But if we do work out the kinks someday, the various sperm-sperm, egg-cell, and even egg-egg tactics that could emerge could be liberating for a society looking for new family planning paradigms.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine, Top Posts
  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    If you wish to use only your own wealth, breed and support what you want. If you are plundering my wallet by law, I demand carriage trade price purchase carriage trade product.

    7.5 billion people in a 3 billion people bag and we want giant State hatcheries (centralized healthcare) for more children faster? We should be breeding (Roland Berrill and Lancelot Lionel Ware, Mensa) against regression toward the mean, gene-gineering for extreme intelligence, ending mandatory charity for the congenitally inconsequential, and euthanizing (Sparta, midwives) physical and genetic trash at birth.

    The cheapest custom biology breeds itself. Only pay for starter cultures.

    • brotheroflogan

      Sounds like you are advocating infanticide.

      • Steve Knickerbocker

        Sounds more like the loony bin finally got an internet connection.

    • Locus

      I AGREE. most of the planets genetically inferior races should be sterilized.

  • LeftistDestroyer

    Technology and abortion are on a collision course.
    Abortion will lose.

  • TimBones

    God’s miracle of human gestation and natural birth should not be replace by some gizmo pressure cooker. We ca assist the process by correcting problems while in the womb or ceasariam birth when necessary. Don’t go all mechanical as a better mother bonds with her baby naturally while she catties the child.

    • Locus

      here we go with imposing your religion on the rest of us, who want to
      see this technology developed. how about YOU DONT USE IT, AND LEAVE THE

  • Maia

    Shouldn’t there be a priority on developing things most needed, rather than “would be nice”? Especially when it comes to bringing more children into being in a very overcrowded and overpopoulated world. We need to get help for those children and mothers already here. AND we need to leave some room for other life forms. Too many humans and their pleasures as well as needs, is the major cause of other life forms going extinct, massive pollution, wars, etc. Let’s take care of what we have now, use technology for NEEDS rather than luxuries.

    • CuriousMind

      Well said. I also just can’t help feeling like we’re playing God with all this new science and technology, and it’s hard to know where to draw the line on the “God complex” issue. (Who are we, after all, to decide who should live and who should die; or who should have kids and who doesn’t “deserve” them?) We’ve all benefitted from medical advances, and in theory, I like your distinction of needs vs. luxuries. But even that becomes problematic upon further thought, because who’s to say, for example, that that prophylactic hysterectomy I had was a necessity? or the chemo treatment my colleague had last year to treat cancer? After all, you’ve already mentioned overpopulation. Couldn’t it be argued that disease/plague/the ravages of poverty is nature’s (God’s?) way of trying to control the population? Don’t flame me, folks, I’m just putting forward another line of thought to advance the discussion. I don’t necessarily support it.

      • Brad DrunkenTraitor

        The other side of the same coin is that nature (god) gave us the tools to decide our own future. And we are using them every day to advance ourselves and in theory reduce suffering for the whole human race.
        We are the only ones who can decide who should live or die. We are the only ones who can decide that the birth rate needs to be slowed. We are the only ones who can decide need vs luxury.

        The bible says a lot of things, often contradictory and confusing, but it definitely says we have dominion over the earth and everything in it. Kind of suggests it is our duty to do the good that is in front of us and use our god given power to improve our lot worldwide.

        To me, it isnt a question of how dare we play god. Its a question of how can we live with ourselves if we don’t.

        • CuriousMind

          I see your point and agree with most of what you say, my only disagreement being us being the ones who CAN decide who should live or die; I’m not sure we should have that right, at least in general. (There are, of course, always exceptions, in which case it becomes a responsibility, an onus, not a right.) The problem with playing God is that it goes both ways. There are those (apparently like you and me) who see the positive side of playing God to benefit mankind, but there are also plenty of evil people out there who want to play God for the power trip, or only to benefit themselves or their particular groups. So the question becomes, do we limit who can “play God”? And if so, who decides who gets to use these wonderful new tools and who doesn’t? And then who enforces those decisions, and how? I’m not saying I have the answers; clearly, I don’t. But I do have lots of questions, and I think perhaps more of them should be considered before jumping in and doing things just because we can.

    • Locus

      whats with this thought process by you communist, of the either or, why cant we develop both technologies? just because you divert resources from one project to another, does not mean increase in speed of research for the later. Not everything needs to be controlled and managed by you totalitarians, you dont own the rest of us.

      • Maia

        Don’t know who you are responding to. Not me. :)

  • Wael Kokash

    Promising science for premature births, and for helping sterile individuals … and for much more cases. However, i think it would be a disaster, if the public started depending on ectogenesis, for the family itself because conceiving the child has been for ages considered as a scared phenomena on the level of humanity, not culturally, but humanly… resulting in undermining the value of the human being as a mere biological animal.. (even though this is correct in scientific terms), having this kind notion among a society bears the possibilities of having lots of misfortunes in the future…
    secondly, and most importantly, the bad effects that ectogenesis will bring to the family, the married couple who are the majority, are primarily sociological problems, since pregnancy is what makes the couple sympathize with each other and build more strong bonds of love and trust between the couple… or else, having a baby would be like getting the groceries from down the street. making an easy process that’s easy to get “rid of”… just like what’s happening right now with abortion, the only difference being is that ectogenesis is way more dangerous..

    i believe that a sociologist will share the same point of mine, that is the dangerous effects of ectogenesis on society…

  • Erin

    Although I never became pregnant while undergoing treatment, I wasn’t a big fan. In IVF and surrogacy there`s nothing to hide. Such procedure gives people the opportunity to be happy. Children make our life colorful and valuable. If you are afraid just think over the proses of surrogacy. You can have a baby even though you are struggling with infertility or you are a gay couple. In many countries there are competent professionals, agencies and lawyers who can assist you to make this dream a reality. Medical technology is so advanced that the statistics for success in achieving a pregnancy are high. The right professional team will offset the fear and nervousness you will have in going through surrogacy to have your children. Well, many people prefer to criticize surrogacy. But if they face the problem of infertility, their minds change. I hope that in a few decades there will be no childless families at all. I`m one of those people, who used IVF technologies. I did it in reproductive center in Ukraine. Center is a boon for infertility. Awesome hospitality, best care, with satisfactory dealing with patients


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar