Who needs sex to make babies? Pretty soon, humans won’t

The Guardian 6 April 2016
Family First Comment: Brave New World.
“A couple who wants children will visit a clinic – he will leave a sperm sample; she will leave a skin sample. A week or two later, the prospective parents will receive information on 100 embryos created from their cells, telling them what the embryos’ genomes predict about their future. Prospective parents will then be asked what they want to be told about each embryo – serious early onset genetic diseases, other diseases, cosmetic traits, behaviours, and, easiest but important to many: gender. Then they will select which embryos to move into the womb for possible pregnancy and birth.”
The abuse of Nature.

I confidently predict that people will still be having sex in 20 to 40 years’ time, but they will be using sex to conceive their babies much less often. Two biomedical advances are going to change how humans reproduce: whole genome sequencing and stem cell technology.

For over 25 years now, some babies have been born after something called pre-implantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). Three- to five-day-old embryos have some of their cells removed and subjected to genetic testing. Parents and doctors then decide, based on the test results, which embryos to transfer into the womb in the hope of making a baby. Last year 3,000 to 4,000 babies were born in the US after PGD without any obvious safety problems.

PGD will soon get much better, becoming what I call “easy PGD.” Cheap whole genome sequencing is one reason. The first whole human genome was sequenced in 2003 at a cost of about £350m. Today, a whole human genome sequence costs around £1,000; in 20 to 40 years, it will be far less. Before, PGD was able to look at one or a handful of genetic traits; it can now look at an embryo’s whole genome and the futures that genome implies. That will make PGD much more useful to parents.

The big problem with PGD, though, has been that it requires in vitro fertilisation (IVF). Invented in the UK nearly 40 years ago, IVF has been a godsend for millions, but it has not been easy. Harvesting eggs from a woman’s ovaries is expensive, uncomfortable, and somewhat risky (life is unfair – sperm collection usually has none of those problems).

Stem cell technologies will bypass egg harvesting. Instead we will take a woman’s skin cells; turn them into so-called “induced pluripotent stem cells” (cells very similar to the famous embryonic stem cells but made from living people); turn those cells into eggs, and mature the eggs in the lab. This would not only greatly reduce the cost, discomfort and risk of IVF, but would allow each woman reliably to produce hundreds of eggs (or more). It already has worked in mice and the first steps have been taken with humans.

The result will be easy PGD. A couple who wants children will visit a clinic – he will leave a sperm sample; she will leave a skin sample. A week or two later, the prospective parents will receive information on 100 embryos created from their cells, telling them what the embryos’ genomes predict about their future. Prospective parents will then be asked what they want to be told about each embryo – serious early onset genetic diseases, other diseases, cosmetic traits, behaviours, and, easiest but important to many: gender. Then they will select which embryos to move into the womb for possible pregnancy and birth.
READ MORE: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/01/sex-babies-humans-parents-technology-science-fiction-pgd
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