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Discussion of ethics of new IVG technique is needed, say US experts

16 January 2017
Appeared in BioNews 884

Three US experts say public conversation should begin now on the ethical questions raised by a new fertility technology that could reprogram any human cell into eggs and sperm.

In the future, the technology of in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) could 'reprogram' adults cells, such as skin cells, into functional gametes to produce embryos. Writing in Science Translational Medicine, the authors warn IVG could lead to unique regulatory challenges and they call for debate on its prospective use and impact on society.

'There's something troubling about an inexhaustible supply of gametes that can be fertilised into an inexhaustible supply of embryos,' said Dr Eli Adashi of Brown University, who authored the editorial with Professor Glenn Cohen of Harvard Law School and Professor George Daley of Harvard Medical School.

IVG is still far from human clinical trials, but was successfully demonstrated in mice in 2016, by Japanese scientists (see BioNews 874). The procedure holds potential benefits for fertility treatment. It could make it unnecessary to harvest eggs for IVF, which may be limited in supply, and the associated health risks such as ovarian hyperstimulation syndrome. Gametes could be grown for patients who have become infertile through medical treatment, and genome editing could be used to correct mutations in the gametes of patients with genetic infertility disorders.

Gametes would also be readily available for research. IVG could be used to produce new embryonic stem cell lines, personalised to individuals, without the need for donor eggs.

However, IVG could also result in large numbers of embryos being produced and destroyed, potentially raising ethical and religious objections. 'IVG may raise the specter of "embryo farming" on a scale currently unimagined, which might exacerbate concerns about the devaluation of human life,' caution the authors.

Parents undergoing fertility treatment could also have more 'choice' in the embryos they want to use, leading to selection for specific genetic traits.

'IVG could, depending on its ultimate financial cost, greatly increase the number of embryos from which to select, thus exacerbating concerns about parents selecting for their "ideal" future child,' said the authors.

They also questioned how to prevent 'unauthorised IVG', where gametes could be created from discarded skin cells without the individual's knowledge or consent, and the legal ramifications of any children produced from this.

The authors say it is not yet technically or legally feasible to produce a human baby via IVG, and it might never be. 'Still, with science and medicine hurtling forward at breakneck speed, the rapid transformation of reproductive and regenerative medicine may surprise us. Before the inevitable, society will be well advised to strike and maintain a vigorous public conversation on the ethical challenges of IVG.'

25 March 2019 - by Ana Hallgarten 
The Progress Educational Trust (PET) symposium event 'Revolutionising Reproduction: The Future of Fertility Treatment' took place at the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh on the 19th March 2019...
8 January 2018 - by Sarah Carter-Walshaw 
IVG involves the use of stem cells to create sperm and egg cells in vitro, which can then be used to produce embryos. It is a technique that could provide a fertility treatment option for people who currently cannot have their own genetically related children – including infertile individuals or couples, older women, and same-sex couples...
27 March 2017 - by Dr Rachel Huddart 
Rapid advances in stem cell and embryo research are in danger of outstripping current ethical guidelines and new regulations are urgently needed, warn scientists in a report published this week...
24 October 2016 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Scientists in Japan are the first to have created live mouse pups from eggs that were made from stem cells...
12 September 2016 - by Dr Katie Howe 
Researchers in Belgium have taken the first steps towards producing a transplantable artificial ovary after demonstrating successful follicle survival in mice...
23 May 2016 - by Arit Udoh 
A group of scientists has been criticised for holding a high-level, behind-closed-doors meeting to discuss a project to synthesise a complete human genome within ten years...
29 February 2016 - by Dr Helen Robertson 
Scientists in China have used stem cells to create rudimentary sperm that successfully fertilised mouse eggs to produce healthy offspring...
21 September 2015 - by Lubna Ahmed 
French researchers have described a technique to produce human sperm cells in the laboratory as they attempt to patent the method...
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