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Tuesday, May 22, 2007


2025. You have sex only for fun. Want babies? Head to a fertility clinic that takes your sperms or eggs and cooks up a baby for you. Absurd science fiction? Maybe not. Enormous advances in reproductive science are set to change the world of making babies. Already, the portents are clear. Women are set to exercise their choice in the kind of baby they want: they could choose the sex, intelligence level and even hair color of these ‘designer kids’.
What is wrong with plain, old-fashioned sex as a way of making a baby, you ask?
Experts say that natural reproduction can lead to a 1 in 16 chance of a child having a serious physical or mental genetic defect. In addition, smaller genetic factors could lead to the occurrence of major illnesses later on in life. Artificial reproduction, on the other hand, is getting safer by the day, as genetic screening of the embryo is getting more sophisticated and discriminating.
For couples suffering from infertility, in vitro fertilization (IVF) has been the standard treatment for getting a baby. Put simply, in this process, the female egg, called oocyte, is plucked out and frozen in a cryopreservative. It is then mated in a dish with the sperm of the donor (who could be the husband or someone unknown). A primitive embryo, called a zygote, is formed. This is then implanted in the uterus of the woman at the most suitable time for getting accepted by the lining of the uterus. In the best centers IVF is safe and has a 30% success rate, but does have several possible side effects like twins or triplets, premature babies, birth defects, among others. Mothers-to-be commonly suffer from emotional burnouts.
Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD) is set to change all this. A woman can have many of her eggs fertilized with sperms, leading to a bank of multiple embryos. PGD can select the best embryos by eliminating the ones that test positive for obvious genetic disorders like Down’s syndrome or cystic fibrosis. Greater knowledge of the genetic maps of intelligence, skin and hair color, emotional and creative makeup, etc. can in the future lead to selection of the embryo as per the specific choice of the parents. In addition, women can store their eggs or embryos for use in the future, whenever they are ready for it. They could even sell their eggs. Cryopreservation techniques now allow the storage of viable embryos for many years.
As recently as the first week of November this year, a group from the Yale University School of Medicine led by Emre Seli presented a paper at the American Society of Reproductive Medicine annual meeting at New Orleans and claimed an 80 percent success rate in IVF fertilization rates, more than double the best current results. They have used sophisticated Raman and Near Infrared spectrophotometric tests that identify those embryos that show metabolic signs of ‘oxidative stress’. Those embryos that do show such signs are eliminated, and those that do not are chosen. This technique, by selecting the best embryos, is slated to reduce the number of IVF attempts before successful pregnancy is achieved. This technology of metabolic profiling of the embryo is now ready for commercial availability from a company called Molecular Biometrics.
Another development is set to increase IVF fertility rates. Researchers in Massachusetts have found that they could select embryos with better chances of successful implantation. The cells are kept in a fluid whose surface oxygen concentration is measured. If the zygote is viable, the oxygen levels are low, because it ‘breathes’ and uses up oxygen. Higher levels mean a non-viable embryo that is sacrificed.
It is likely that, in the future, these forms of artificial reproduction will result in less birth defects and premature births, especially when genetic testing becomes cheaper. Scientific futurologist Randall Parker says “I predict most prospective parents will chose IVF over natural sexual reproduction”. Simon Fishel, one of the original workers in the path-breaking 1978 ‘test tube baby’ team, agrees “It is technically possible”.
Scientific progress by accident is well known, going back to Isaac Newton and the apple. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute in Israel accidentally found that women being treated by IVF had more successful results after they were subjected to a biopsy of the uterine lining. Three Israeli hospitals have now adopted endometrial biopsy as a standard part of their treatment protocol and are expecting the Americans to follow suit.
As with all super-modern technologies, the main problem with the Artificial Reproduction Techniques is the cost. "You have to pay per cycle," points out Fishel, while "natural reproduction costs you nothing."
As competition in the global embryo market hots up, we could soon see Lamarck’s Natural Selection Theory standing on its head, as Man scientifically eliminates Nature’s genetic lottery of natural birth and adopts customized artificial births.

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