What Could the Future Hold?
Assisted reproductive technology has come a long way in the centuries since van Leeuwenhoek proposed that sperm are actually very small fetuses with tails operated by very small muscles. Greater and greater understanding of the biological factors that lead to successful reproduction, such as hormones and genetics, will lead to better and better technologies. The social implications of this are far-reaching, and the future could look like a science fiction novel sooner than you might think.
With so much interest in assisted reproductive technology, scientists are working to improve it even further. What could the future hold? Here are a few of the innovations now coming down the pipeline.
Because the health of the sperm that creates the embryo has a huge influence on the health of the baby, selecting the healthiest sperm for IVF is crucial. If ICSI is being used, it’s even more crucial, because the natural barrier of fertilization that normally weeds out the unhealthy sperm is no longer functioning. Currently, technologies are being used that use various parameters to assess the sperm, and choose the healthiest ones for IVF; as this technology is improved, the rates at which healthy embryos are created and become healthy babies are also likely to improve.
But sperm selection has an even more interesting side. Whether the sperm that fertilizes the egg contains an X chromosome or a Y chromosome determines the gender of the resulting child. Currently, technology is available that can sort the X- and Y-containing sperm, allowing the parents to choose the gender of their child. The technology isn’t perfect, but as technology advances, it will get better. This is very controversial; should parents be allowed to choose whether they have a daughter or a son? Most people agree that parents should be allowed to choose to eliminate genetic diseases, but choosing gender is far more complicated, and many people believe that it’s ethically objectionable. Others, however, simply see it as the future.
This issue gets even more complicated when preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) is used. Again, this is relatively uncontroversial when used to eliminate chromosomal abnormalities or other genetic diseases, especially those that will cause death or severe disability in the child. However, PGD can also be used for sex selection, and much more accurately than sperm selection can; and as genetic research advances and the genetic influences on a variety of traits are discovered, selection for traits will become much easier. For instance, parents could choose to implant only the most intelligent embryos, or the tallest, or the most musically-able.
This is a hugely controversial area, for reasons that are probably clear. Eugenics, or the genetic selection of humans for particular traits, has led to horrific events in human history, with millions of deaths. Opponents of the use of PGD for trait selection see it as the beginning of such a path. Proponents see it as another use of technology to make our lives easier and better. Whatever you believe, it’s likely that this use of PGD will expand in future decades.
Making Gametes, Rather Than Buying Them
Gametes are sperm and eggs. For now, those whose bodies are unable to produce healthy sperm and eggs need to obtain these through donations if they want to have children. This means that the resulting children won’t be genetically related to one or both parents. However, this might not always be the case.
Researchers are working to coax adult cells to become stem cells, which are a type of cell with unlimited potential to become any other type of cell in the body. From the stem cells, they can then induce the formation of gametes. This could mean that those who are infertile due to factors such as age, previous cancer treatment, or other reasons may soon be able to have children that are genetically their own.
The Future is Bright!
The innovations coming down the pipeline in the field of assisted reproductive technology are exciting. And the present is exciting too. Whatever type of medical problem is causing your infertility, there’s a good chance that ART can help you start your family. So there’s no need to wait — go ahead and explore your options!