Emerging Reproductive Technology Holds Great Potential and Risks for Patients, Research

Emerging technologies may help combat infertility caused by cancer and cancer treatment.
Emerging technologies may help combat infertility caused by cancer and cancer treatment.

In vitro gametogenesis (IVG), which has only been successful in mice so far, allows scientists to create embryos by first reprogramming adult cells into eggs or sperm. However, a thorough assessment of the legal and ethical issues facing society is advised before IVG becomes available for clinical use, according to a report in the journal Science Translational Medicine.1,2

"Emerging technologies carry enormous promise but can also be profoundly disruptive. Aligning their promise with ethical and legal considerations is an imperative not only for scientists but for the society as a whole," said co-author George Q. Daley, MD, PhD, dean of Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts.2 

"To do so, we must initiate vital conversations early and engage the public. Nothing less will do on our quest to ensure that we strike the right balance between our most audacious scientific pursuits and our core ethical and legal principles."2

IVG has the potential to treat infertility and a variety of currently untreatable diseases. The technique could also provide unlimited, laboratory-derived, embryonic stem cells for research and therapy. Current regulatory restrictions limit the supply of human embryonic stem cells.

Risks and challenges facing IVG include the need for thorough protocols ensuring all reproductive cells derived from IVG do not have genetic aberrations, the risk of improper commercialization of IVG, and the application of IVG to make “designer” babies.

While the use of IVG in humans remains unlikely in the near future, clinical applications sometimes arrive much more quickly than anticipated. Vigorous conversations about the benefits and risks of IVG are, therefore, necessary now.

"It is critical for law and medical ethics to grapple with the far-ranging implications of this new technology," said first author I. Glenn Cohen, JD, professor of law, Harvard Law School. 

Among IVG's potential benefits is the possibility of offering fertility-saving treatment in prepubertal children who undergo therapy that damages their reproductive organs such as cancer survivors.

Among IVG's potential risks is the unauthorized or covert use of biological material such as hair to generate human embryos.

References

1. Cohen IG, Daley GQ, Adashi EY. Disruptive reproductive technologies. Sci Transl Med. 2017 Jan 11. doi: 10.1126/scitranslmed.aag2959.

2. Harvard Medical School. The promise and peril of emerging reproductive technologies [news release]. EurekAlert! web site. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-01/hms-tpa011017.php. January 11, 2017. Accessed January 24, 2017.

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