OMBUDSMAN’S ALERT: A New Way to Reproduce, Will it Change Life as We Know it?

Breaking News From MIT


With the approval of David Rotman, editor of the MIT Technology Review, this week’s Ombudsman’s Alert will quote directly from an article featured in the Sept/Oct issue of this MIT publication.

I will begin this column by first quoting Dr. George Daley, a stem-cell biologist, who recently became dean of Harvard University’s Medical School:

“Daley cited Aldous Huxley’s 1932 book ‘Brave New World,’ which described a society that controlled reproduction and incubated children in centralized facilities, the picture Huxley drew was dystopian, but also prescient. It predicted IVF.

“Daley believes scientific advances will allow for scenarios not unlike the ones Huxley describes.”

The Ombudsman Alert notes that Huxley wrote his famous book 85-years-ago and yet the Head of Harvard’s Medical School has admitted in 2017 that there may indeed be some truth in his predictions!

It is now most instructive to relate an actual story of a married couple desperately hoping to have a child using technology, still under development, which, if successful, would serve as a realization of at least one of Huxley’s predictions back in 1932:

“Let’s call him B.D. because that’s what his wife does on her infertility blog, Shooting Blanks. Several years ago, the 36-year-old learned he was azoospermatic, which means his body makes no sperm at all.

“During a recent phone interview, I could hear his wife in the background. She is 35 and facing what she describes as a terrifying countdown toward a life with no children. ‘Being childless can’t be my destiny, it just can’t be,’ she wrote on her blog.

“So far, B.D’s case of infertility has proved untreatable despite years of pills, vitamins and a major surgery. But he may still have a long-shot chance of being a father. In 2012, B.D. traveled to Stanford University, where a technician performed a skin punch, removing a small disk of tissue from his shoulder. With a technique called ‘reprogramming,’ his skin cells were converted into stem cells that have the potential to mature into various types of human cells. These were then transplanted into the testicles of a mouse. Would the stem cells take cues from their environment and form sperm? Two years later, when the scientists announced that they had found evidence of primitive human reproductive cells, the provocative findings made the national news.

“I heard it on NPR. I was thinking, ‘Son of a…that is me they are talking about,” B.D. recalls.

“The futuristic technology of gametes-in-a-dish can’t come soon enough for men like B.D. He told me that he ‘holds out hope he’ll be the first candidate or one of the first’” if a treatment using lab-made sperm gets approved. But it’s not likely to happen in time for him. He says his wife recently set a date to give up trying to have children. It’s September 2019.”

We wish the best of luck to B.D. and his wife. How far will synthetic reproduction technology go and what will it mean for human life? It’s a tale yet to be told. Stay tuned!

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