(KPIX 5) — A revolutionary way for human beings to reproduce appears inevitable, and the future may be closer than any of us can imagine.
The science and technology is already here, and in the coming decades experts believe this technology will come online, allowing parents to be able to choose a particular kind of child to have before the child is born.
It will be possible to have children who are not only free from deadly diseases, but who are born with carefully selected physical and mental traits.
This is all thanks to new and emerging reproductive technologies.
“I think most of our babies in 20 to 40 years are going to be conceived in a clinic,” declared bioethicist Hank Greely.
Greely is a professor of law and genetics at Stanford University and author of “The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction.”
He believes having actual sex in order to reproduce will become obsolete, even for fertile couples. Simply put, Greely said, babies will be created in vitro.
“Not in the bedroom, not in the back seat of a car, not under the “keep off the grass sign,” he mused.
You might think we’re talking about in vitro fertilization. This involves IVF but the new technique involves some cutting-edge technologies as well.
Greely calls the new technique Easy PGD for “Easy Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis.” It uses an existing reproductive technology but adds a new one that revolves around stem cells.
The technique involves fertility experts creating human eggs and sperm by using stem cells derived from a piece of skin. The technology converts these skin cells into so-called “induced pluripotent stem cells” or iPSCs that are then turned into eggs and sperm.
Kyoto University professor Shinya Yamanaka pioneered the iPSC technology along with English biologist Sir John Gurdon, a discovery which earned both the 2012 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
Using iPSCs for reproduction has already been done with mice.
With a few skin cells, instead of harvesting eggs from a female’s ovaries using an expensive, uncomfortable and risky technique, scientists can make a countless number of embryos from the skin cells – each one unique.
“How many do you get? How many do you want?” said Greely. “Tens, hundreds, thousands, millions – it just a cell line.”
As they can be today, the embryos will be screened for certain genetic diseases along with gender.
But in the future, these embryos might also be screened for certain traits parents might find irresistible: hair color, eye color, height, even behavior.
“They’ll be asked what they want to know, they’ll be told the answers for 100 embryos and asked to choose which embryo they want,” explained Greely.
“The way technology is advancing, I think there is a real possibility that could happen,” said Dr. Lynn Westphal, a reproductive endocrinologist at Stanford Medical Center.
She says with IVF, women today have to go through egg retrieval, which requires injections.
“If they could just have a little bit of skin removed and make eggs of out that, it would make the procedure much easier, medically,” explained Westphal.
The technology opens up reproduction to those typically shut out of having their own genetic child.
“A single male, same sex couple, or a woman who is older who doesn’t have good eggs anymore,” said Westphal.
The benefit is a healthy child. But Westphal cautioned there is also a concern.
“When people start to select for other characteristics that are not clearly beneficial for the child from a health standpoint,” she said.
Add to the debate: A new tool seen for the first time in an astonishing video. It’s a gene editing technique known as CRISPR-Cas9.
Just this past November, researchers published a brief movie in the journal Nature Communications that showed the activity of CRISPR on a strand of DNA. In the movie, you see a pulsating yellow blob, That is where a gene is getting edited, and the DNA is taken out
Not seen in the movie, the next step: in place of the edited out DNA, scientists would replace a new bit of DNA. The hope: that the new DNA will fix a bad genetic mutation so that it no longer exists in the individual or the individual’s offspring.
“It’s changing the world,” said Greely.
In the future, CRISPR may be used to permanently tweak or change disease-causing genes in an embryo. The concern is it could also be used to enhance babies – to make them smarter or stronger.
“I think that’s a world we don’t want to live in,” said Marcy Darnovsky, Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society in Berkeley.
Darnovsky questioned if this technology comes online whether parents will feel pressured to genetically engineer their offspring.
“To have your kid be engineered in a certain way to get into the right pre-school, in the right grade school, and the right college,” asked Darnovsky. “We already live with that. Do we want to amp it up even more?”
Greely explained that his research is intended to raise difficult and important questions that society needs to address now before the new technologies become mainstream for IVF.
Parents will always want to the ability to avoid having a child who would suffer with a severe early genetic disease. But will Easy PGD involve coercion? For example, if you don’t use it, will your child lose health insurance or will health systems no longer provide care for children who are born with a disease-causing gene that puts them at risk for illness?
As one mom put it, while she prefers to let nature take its course, she can imagine the pressure.
“That frightens me if someone like me decided not to do that – and let Mother Nature take the lead – is that child going to be at a disadvantage?”