Stem Cells Offer Hope for Infertile Couples

The waiting rooms of Cornell Weil, Columbia University and New York University fertility clinics have up to forty women waiting to see specialists on any given day. Many of these women, having delayed having a baby for years, now face a deeply troubling scenario: the impossibility of having a genetic child of their own. For most women over 40 whose ovaries are now producing few and poor quality eggs, fertility specialists offer little help. Ovarian reserve, or how many eggs you have in your ovaries, is measured by a number called FSH. They call FSH the cruelest number in infertility because a high FSH signifies an extremely low chance of conception.


Most women with diminished ovarian reserve use donor eggs to conceive. A number of the celebrities one often sees having babies in their mid to late forties have used donor eggs. However, this fact is never discussed in public, leaving many women with the false notion that age is not an important factor in fertility: “I know a 43 year old can have a baby. I just read about Celebrity X in People magazine who had twins and she is 45 years old!!” 

Recently, some news coming out of Egypt may offer help for both celebrities and non-celebrities who suffer from diminished ovarian reserves. In the fall of 2010, Dr. Osama Azmy of the National Research Centre in Cairo announced that he had been able to kick start prematurely failed ovaries in rats by using embryonic stem cells. The rats’ ovaries had begun to create fresh new eggs, and FSH levels had returned within eight weeks to pre-ovarian failure levels. If Azmy can replicate the same results in humans as planned, women will be able to take their time finding a partner and building a career, and still be able to have their own genetic offspring. This scenario is not socially irresponsible: men already have these choices available to them.

The path to the treatment is controversial as are the complicated social implications afterwards. First, Azmy would need approval to use stem cells from aborted fetuses or discarded embryos from fertility procedures like IVF. Embryonic stem cell research and therapy is illegal in several countries, including many states in the US. If their use is allowed, will we see harvesting of embryos for the specific purpose of kickstarting the ovaries of infertile women? Recently, researchers have been able to return mature cells to their immature or stem cell status, which avoids using embryos altogether. This might be one solution to the biopolitical roadblocks in using stem cells.

Right now, Azmy is urging caution because these rats have only exhibited functioning ovaries, and will next produce offspring, which will be analyzed for disorders and also to check whether they are genetically related to the mother or to the donor who supplied the stem cells. He is also considering the treatment for women younger than 40 who suffer from premature ovarian failure.

But if the treatment works, and can be extended to older women, then even post-menopausal women in their 60s could have children. Should the state put a ceiling on how old a woman can be to have this treatment? While it made sense from an evolutionary perspective to reduce the fertility of older women when lifespan was less than 50 years, it doesn’t make sense now that the life expectancy of anyone born today in the developed world is 100 years. Not only are people living longer, but they are also healthier and earning well past the retirement age of 65. This means a woman who is 50 years old could easily nurture and provide for a baby until it reaches adulthood. Besides, there is no law stopping a man from having a child late in life; men can conceive well into their 50s and beyond. David Letterman, for example, had his son at 56 years.

We have already had much controversy over the “Octomom” who gave birth to eight babies at once using in-vitro fertilization (IVF). We can expect as much controversy over cases of ineligible mothers reversing menopause and having children very late in life. However, just as with IVF, stem cell therapy for ovaries can also give hope to many deserving women who are healthy, relatively young and fully capable of looking after a child.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.

Develop mindfulness to boost your creative intelligence

Sharon Salzberg, world-renowned mindfulness leader, teaches meditation at Big Think Edge.

Image: Big Think
Big Think Edge
  • Try meditation for the first time with this guided lesson or, if you already practice, enjoy being guided by a world-renowned meditation expert.
  • Sharon Salzberg teaches mindfulness meditation for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

For a long time, the West shaped the world. That time is over.

The 21st century is experiencing an Asianization of politics, business, and culture.

Videos
  • Our theories about the world, even about history or the geopolitics of the present, tend to be shaped by Anglo perspectives of the Western industrial democracies, particularly those in the United States and the United Kingdom.
  • The West, however, is not united. Canada, for instance, acts in many ways that are not in line with American or British policies, particularly in regard to populism. Even if it were united, though, it would not represent most of the world's population.
  • European ideas, such as parliamentary democracy and civil service, spread across the world in the 19th century. In the 20th century, American values such as entrepreneurialism went global. In the 21st century, however, what we're seeing now is an Asianization — an Asian confidence that they can determine their own political systems, their own models, and adapt to their own circumstances.
Keep reading Show less

Vikings unwittingly made their swords stronger by trying to imbue them with spirits

They didn't know it, but the rituals of Iron Age Scandinavians turned their iron into steel.

Shutterstock
Culture & Religion
  • Iron Age Scandinavians only had access to poor quality iron, which put them at a tactical disadvantage against their neighbors.
  • To strengthen their swords, smiths used the bones of their dead ancestors and animals, hoping to transfer the spirit into their blades.
  • They couldn't have known that in so doing, they actually were forging a rudimentary form of steel.
Keep reading Show less

Why the ocean you know and love won’t exist in 50 years

Can sensitive coral reefs survive another human generation?

Videos
  • Coral reefs may not be able to survive another human decade because of the environmental stress we have placed on them, says author David Wallace-Wells. He posits that without meaningful changes to policies, the trend of them dying out, even in light of recent advances, will continue.
  • The World Wildlife Fund says that 60 percent of all vertebrate mammals have died since just 1970. On top of this, recent studies suggest that insect populations may have fallen by as much as 75 percent over the last few decades.
  • If it were not for our oceans, the planet would probably be already several degrees warmer than it is today due to the emissions we've expelled into the atmosphere.
Keep reading Show less