In a breakthrough that could revolutionize human reproduction, Japanese scientists are making significant strides in the field of lab-grown human babies, potentially overcoming the challenges of infertility, same-sex parenthood, and age-related childbearing restrictions.
The research could herald a new era in which human eggs and sperm are grown in a laboratory setting – developing in an artificial womb and resulting in a viable fetus.
Kyushu University‘s Professor Katsuhiko Hayashi, a frontrunner in this field, is leading the research. Having already proven the process viable in mice, Professor Hayashi estimates that the technology could be adapted for human use within the next five years.
However, this unprecedented scientific progress doesn’t come without controversy. The capability of producing babies in a lab raises some intense ethical dilemmas. It means that women of any age could potentially have babies, promoting a swarm of questions around biological, social, and chronological norms.
Furthermore, the creation of custom-made human sperm and eggs might tempt some parents to genetically tailor their offspring using gene-editing tools in pursuit of a so-called “perfect child.”
Highlighting the capabilities of this technology, Dr. Hayashi and his team recently achieved a remarkable feat: creating seven mice with two male biological parents.
The experts accomplished this by converting skin cells from a male mouse into a viable egg, which was then fertilized. The technology behind this, known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), holds major potential for human reproduction.
IVG works by extracting cells from a person’s blood or skin and reprogramming them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells), a type of stem cell that can theoretically differentiate into any cell in the body, including egg and sperm cells.
These cells can then be used to create embryos and, potentially, be implanted into women’s wombs. So far, scientists have managed to make human eggs and sperm in this manner, but creating viable embryos remains a hurdle to overcome.
While Dr. Hayashi estimates five years for the production of egg-like cells from humans, he cautions that it could take another 10 to 20 years of testing before doctors deem the process safe for clinical use. Professor Henry Greely of Stanford University agrees, predicting a similar timeline for proof of concept and safety testing.
Commenting on the ambitious timeline, Jeanne Loring, a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute, said in an interview with The New York Times in 2017, “I wouldn’t be surprised if it was five years, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it was 25 years.”
If successful, this technology could be transformative for the approximately one in 10 couples in the U.S. who struggle with infertility, as well as for same-sex couples and hopeful single parents who currently rely on donated sperm or eggs, IVF, and in some cases, surrogates.
However, there remain significant ethical, legal, and safety considerations around IVG, with some ethicists warning of a potential shift towards designer babies and eugenics, as well as legal challenges that society may not be ready to handle.
One of the unsettling possibilities that this technology presents is the potential misuse of DNA. In a world where lab-grown babies are possible, stealing someone’s DNA using something as simple as a strand of hair to produce babies without their consent could become a reality.
In 2016, Hayashi and his team embarked on a groundbreaking experiment with eight-week-old mice, in which they created stem cells by manipulating cells to duplicate the X chromosome, resulting in a female cell. “The biggest trick of this is the duplication of the X chromosome,” Dr. Hayashi explained.
These cells were turned into eggs and fertilized by sperm from male mice. As a result, seven healthy mice pups were born. The ultimate goal is to test this method using human cells. Dr. Hayashi told New Scientist he believes the door is now open to children being born from two fathers.
The concept of lab-grown babies, sometimes referred to as artificial wombs or ectogenesis, has been the subject of intense scientific exploration and ethical debate. While we are not yet capable of creating a completely lab-grown human baby, advancements in bioengineering and reproductive medicine are inching us closer to this reality.
The process would theoretically involve creating human gametes (eggs and sperm) in a laboratory, often from stem cells, which would then be used to create a human embryo via in vitro fertilization (IVF). This embryo could then be grown in an artificial womb, a bioengineered uterus, for the duration of a standard pregnancy.
The technology currently being explored by researchers like Professor Hayashi, known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG), is a significant part of this equation. IVG involves reprogramming adult cells into pluripotent stem cells, which can then be transformed into eggs or sperm.
The development of IVG could address a range of reproductive challenges, such as infertility, and could allow same-sex couples or single individuals to have genetically related children without the need for an external egg or sperm donor.
Another crucial piece of the lab-grown baby puzzle is the development of an artificial womb. While this technology is still in its infancy, it has seen some success. For instance, in 2017, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were able to keep premature lamb fetuses alive in a device simulating a womb, providing them with oxygen and nutrients through their umbilical cord while they continued to develop.
However, despite these advancements, we are still far from having the ability to grow a human baby entirely in a laboratory. There are significant technical challenges to be overcome, particularly concerning the early and late stages of pregnancy, which are incredibly complex and still not entirely understood.
Moreover, the idea of lab-grown babies raises a multitude of ethical and societal questions. These include concerns about the implications for our understanding of parenthood and family, and the risk of unforeseen consequences for the children born through this process.
While the prospect of lab-grown babies is intriguing and holds potential to revolutionize human reproduction, it also poses profound scientific, ethical, and societal challenges that we must be carefully considered.
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