Gay couples may soon be able to have their own biological kids

Human egg cells can now be created from donor blood — a brave new world is upon us.

  • Japanese scientists have successfully created immature human egg cells using stem cells.
  • The discovery builds on years of research into the uses of stem cells.
  • While the prospects for new fertility treatments are promising, the ethical questions raised by the procedure will have to be answered.

Japanese scientists have changed blood cells into stem cells which were then used to create immature human egg cells. While the new eggs are too immature to be of any use, the study, published on September 20 in Science, points the way to new fertility treatments as well as ethical concerns that are unlike anything we've encountered before.

How did they do it?

The scientists took human blood cells and used a previously known method to transform them into human pluripotent stem cells (hPSCs). These cells can be changed into any other cell, making them extremely useful in medical research and giving them endless potential for future treatments.

While previous studies have attempted to create lab-grown human eggs from stem cells before, those attempts were all unsuccessful. The trick, it seems, was to put the new egg cells into a miniature ovary built for this task out of cells taken from mice. This allowed the scientists to succeed where others had failed.

What can we do with this?

While the eggs produced in this study are immature and incapable of doing anything, there is reason to hope that over the long run fully functioning eggs will be created. This has already been done for mice, although making that work for human cells will be a little more difficult.

Artificially created mature human egg cells could be used in a variety of fertility treatments. They could be produced for those born infertile, people who have lost their fertility due to illness, or even for gay couples who want to have a child with their own genetic makeup and not that of a donor. On a more mundane level, mature eggs could be created on demand for research purposes.

The study's authors stated that the next step for them will be to try and produce mature egg and sperm cells that could actually be used for reproduction. It may only be a matter of time before fully functioning lab grown human gametes are a reality.

What are the ethical concerns?

This process currently allows immature eggs to be created that have the DNA of the blood cell donor. If the procedure is perfected and mature sperm and eggs can be produced, a brave new world of genetic selection may be upon us. One in which desirable DNA can be bought and sold to create gametes with desirable genetic qualities. Ronald Green, a Dartmouth bioethicist who often works on issues related to stem cells, explains one of the many strange possibilities that we may soon face:

A woman might want to have George Clooney's baby, and his hairdresser could start selling his hair follicles online. So we suddenly could see many, many progeny of George Clooney without his consent.

In addition to the possibility of genetic theft, the ability for any person to have their cells turned into eggs which could lead to a successful birth allows for the creation of children from the cells of the recently deceased. A creepy situation that we will undoubtedly have to reckon with.

People in need of new organs might see fit to have a child created with their DNA to provide a spare kidney a few years down the road. This is already happening in the form of ethically ambiguous savior siblings and was explored in the book and film My Sister's Keeper. Will the morality of the child's creation be any different if the child is tailor made for the person in need of a donor rather than the old fashioned way?

We must begin asking ourselves now how we will react to these ethical questions since the science won't slow down for us.

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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