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Reports of fertility researchers creating an embryo that was both male and
female show the 25-year-old in vitro fertilization industry is still fertile ground
for controversy. In this ScienCentral News video, the scientist behind the
experiment explains why he did it.
It's been 25 years since the first "test-tube" baby was born, and
throughout that quarter of a century, in vitro fertilization, or IVF, has
helped millions of people have children. "When IVF first started, there
was a lot of opposition to the concept of creating a quote-unquote human being
outside of the body," says Dr.
Norbert Gleicher, founder of the Center
for Human Reproduction. "Some people felt it was the end of the world,
and look how far we have come."
But some of the research in this industry, which is self-regulated because
it does not receive government funding, is still controversial. Gleicher recently
transplanted male cells into three-day-old female embryos, and grew the hybrid
in a lab for six days before destroying it. "We came up with the idea
that if we took a male cell and transplanted the male cell into the female
embryo, that would give us a tool to follow an offspring's cells through the
developing embryo, because the male has XY chromosomes, and the female has
only XX," says Gleicher.
Gleicher says that his experiment showed that cells from a sibling could be
transplanted into an embryo to prevent certain genetic diseases caused by
a single defective gene, such as severe combined immunodeficiency (SCIDs),
otherwise known as "bubble boy disease." Gleicher believes that
as with other IVF advances, time will show that his research will have led
to curing many single-gene diseases. "So the purpose of our experiment
was not…to create a mixture of a female or male embryo. That was just
a tool to answer the question whether the transplant worked."
Both scientists and ethicists have criticized Gleicher's methods. "I don't
know whether Gleicher's research was unethical or not, I'm not saying that,"
says Dr. Thomas Murray, director of the Hastings
Center a bioethics research institute. "But…if it was possible
to do the experiment in other ways, then it was both unwise and unnecessary
for the scientist to make a hybrid embryo, part male, part female."
"This research went through an ethics committee,
to an institutional review board, before it was conducted," Gleicher
points out. "We used embryos that were specially donated for this purpose
and that had been frozen. This experiment was performed in a totally ethical
and legal fashion."
Gleicher presented his research at the recent meeting in Madrid of the European
Society for Human Reproduction and Embryology, the largest gathering of
fertility specialists in Europe, and it was chosen as a finalist for an award.
"And indeed, we were told by our committee members that it came down
to our paper and another paper, and that they decided to give the award to
the other paper because they didn't want the publicity," says Gleicher.
But Murray says Gleicher shouldn't have been surprised that the society of
fertility specialists denounced his research. "Any responsible scientist
would have been aware, if you combine female cells and male cells into a human
embryo, you're going to get a lot of public attention to that, and a lot of
it is going to be critical," says Murray. "People are frightened
enough about what goes on in scientific laboratories…that public reaction
just increases people's mistrust of science, and that can't be a benefit to
Gleicher's work was funded by the Center for Human Reproduction and the Foundation
for Reproductive Medicine.