Test tube babies: freaky fiction or possible future?

Imagine a future where procreation happens in a laboratory, and not in the bedroom. Scientists derive embryos from a simple skin sample. Children are screened prenatally for any number of traits that their parents deem desirable. Things as simple as eye color and hair color could be discovered before parents even decide on a name.

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Baby in awe. Source.

Though this sounds like a scene straight out of Brave New World, this kind of scenario may not be purely fiction for much longer. In his book, The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction,  Henry Greely toys with this idea of “designer babies”. The ability for parents to pick and choose their children’s traits in a controlled environment is the central premise of this book, and is based far more on actual scientific research, than it is on science fiction. These kinds of breakthroughs could be possible in the near future through advances in stem cell research.

Most people have at least heard of these seemingly magic little cells, but what are they?  Stem cells are unspecialized cells that can undergo regenerative cell division. Essentially they can divide endlessly, reforming more stem cells, and additionally they can be induced to form a specialized cell type. You may be thinking so what?

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Greely’s book. Source.

Well, stem cells are responsible for turning a tiny little lump of cells into living breathing things like us! They help regenerate damaged cells in certain types of tissues. This is very interesting to scientists because the ability to repair or replace damaged cells could cure or treat many diseases, even America’s leading cause of death, heart disease!

How do we obtain stem cells to study them?  Commonly used techniques include bone marrow transplants, umbilical cord blood, adipose tissue, and harvesting cells from human embryos. However, the use of human embryos brings up ethical issues about when human life really begins and whether embryos have the right to be studied. Why would we use embryos if we can get stem cells from other sources like bone marrow? The answer is simple: the type of stem cell obtained from either technique varies.

There are different types of stem cells, multipotent and pluripotent. Multipotent cells are stem cells that can differentiate into a limited number of cell types such as those found in bone marrow. Pluripotent cells can differentiate into any type of cell (these are found in embryos). Obviously, pluripotent stem cells have more potential use because they can be made into any cell type but controversy has hindered the research of embryo sourced stem cells.

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Image of stem cells. Source.

Until recently, embryos were the only source of pluripotent stem cells. In 2006, Super-scientist Shinya Yamanaka and Sir John B. Gurdon discovered that you can take a mature differentiated cell and convert it into a pluripotent stem cell. They called these cells induced pluripotent stems cells or iPSCs, and this discovery won them both a half share of a Nobel Prize!

After the discovery of iPSCs, stem cell research has exploded. Some potential problems arose, such as problems with immune rejection similar to organ transplants that happen after some embryonic stem cell treatments.

Recently, scientists have found ways to make it less likely for stem cells to be rejected by the immune system — a huge advantage for medical research. This advance could impact personalized medicine in the future in some seriously cool ways.  Many medical, cell-based therapies using iPSCs are being developed to treat ALS, macular degeneration, spinal cord injuries, strokes, heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis. The possibilities seem endless!

In The End of Sex and the Future of Human Reproduction, Greely discusses the possibility of using iPSCs to design gametes that can be combined into an embryo using in-vitro fertilization. He suggests that these embryos could be screened to help eliminate genetic diseases or to select for  physical characteristics.  Some benefits of this method would be eliminating the  need to harvest gametes from parents, an expensive and risky process. This could even pave the way for same-sex couples to have children with their own DNA!

However, using iPSCs in this manner would be very expensive and would likely get tied up in legislation due to ethical arguments . Nonetheless, it’s fascinating to think that the technology is out there. Who knows… we may see the development of babies from a simple skin sample in the not-so-distant future!

kruckowKatherine Kruckow is a graduate of the University of Georgia with a Bachelor’s degree in Microbiology. She is looking for a PhD program to further her passion of studying microbes. When not in the lab she loves hiking, cooking, going to all the concerts she can afford, and reading a good book in her hammock. She also plans on visiting every national park at some point in time during her life. Contact her at kkruckow@uga.eduMore from Katherine Kruckow.