In vitro fertilization (IVF) has been a revolutionary advancement for those with fertility issues and same-sex couples. Dramatic improvements have occurred since the first baby was born using IVF in 1978. Success rates, initially in the single digits, are now close to 50% for women under 35.
Researchers believe an experimental technique called in vitro gametogenesis (IVG) could define the next generation in reproductive science. IVG potentially opens the door for heterosexuals experiencing infertility and same-sex couples to conceive biological children. Still, many medical, legal and ethical questions remain.
What is IVG?
IVF made it possible to produce an embryo outside the body using reproductive cells called gametes, utilizing egg and sperm from intended parents or donors. IVG, while still experimental, allows scientists to reprogram nonreproductive (somatic) cells to become sperm and egg cells. So far, IVG has only been successful in mice.
Scientists also believe it could allow same-sex couples to have their own biological children. For female partners, it would mean changing one woman’s cell into a sperm cell with an X and a Y chromosome. Similarly, for male couples, one male’s cell would need to be transformed into an egg cell with two X chromosomes. Male couples would then also need a surrogate to carry any embryos that result.
In addition to expanding parenting opportunities to many more couples and individuals, IVG may hold many other medical, scientific and therapeutic benefits, including:
- Offering a safer alternative to IVF, which requires injectable hormones to stimulate a woman’s ovaries
- Producing egg cells free of defects and diseases
- Treating some types of infertility by transferring healthy reproductive cells
- Restoring fertility in those whose reproductive tissues and organs have been damaged by cancer treatment
Beyond advances in assisted reproduction, scientists believe the technology could ultimately help solve causes for DNA defects that lead to a variety of inherited diseases.
Legal, ethical and scientific challenges remain
Bear in mind, IVG has not been tested on human subjects, but some scientists say it could be ready for clinical use sooner than many anticipate. Others say its application in the foreseeable future is improbable. That has many calling for society to address a myriad of associated issues. Among the concerns:
- While the technology to reprogram cells has dramatically advanced, it is far from being foolproof.
- IVG can potentially produce an unlimited number of embryos. Could this raise long-held concerns about embryo farming?
- Further research to refine this method warrants creating and possibly destroying lab-produced embryos from stem cells. Such research is not allowed to receive federal funding.
- IVF already allows for screening embryos to identify genetic defects. Would the advent of an unlimited supply of embryos using IVG lead to parents selecting embryos based on genetic traits rather than medical or health concerns?
Some fear that IVG could lead to the unauthorized use of human cells – such as from hair or skin – to produce embryos. That could present not only an ethical dilemma but a legal one as well over the definition of parenthood.
All medical advancements arrive with both benefits and concerns. Hopefully, as IVG develops, medical professionals and aspiring parents can find a way to beneficially use the procedure while addressing and avoiding the ethical quandaries.