This was quite a year for reproductive and genetic technologies, and many of the biggest stories will certainly have sequels. Among the most significant topics were:
- Artificial gametes and cloning
- Inheritable genetic modification
- Prenatal, newborn and other genetic testing
- The fertility industry
- Commercial surrogacy
- Egg “donation” / egg freezing
- Eugenics as policy
- Forensic DNA / DNA databases
- Stem cells: therapies and scandals
- Synthetic biology and the bioeconomy
Artificial gametes and cloning
The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to John Gurdon and Shinya Yamanaka,
for cloning a frog and discovering how to reprogram adult cells into
induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, respectively. Scientists are still
expanding on these breakthroughs.
Mitinori Saitou and colleagues in Kyoto created mice by using sperm and eggs grown from iPS cells,
though supplied ovaries were also needed, at least for the time being.
This sparked immediate speculation about human applications, as did an
earlier Chinese technique of generating sperm. In Korea, there was a push to remove restrictions on human research cloning, and eventually reproductive cloning. Korean animal cloning also garnered free publicity via reality TV.
Inheritable genetic modification
Scientists at the Oregon Health and Science University combined
sperm with the nuclear DNA from one egg and the mitochondrial DNA from
another to generate blastocysts (and embryonic stem cells). If carried
to term, these would be “3-parent babies”
and, the scientists acknowledge, constitute human germline
modification, also known as inheritable genetic modification (IGM). The
team produced live monkeys
using this method in 2009, and are pushing the US Food and Drug
Administration to approve human clinical trials, although all human
germline interventions have previously been considered off limits by
scientists around the world and more than 40 countries have passed laws
against it. In the UK, the HFEA has started a public consultation about allowing similar mitochondrial replacement techniques.
General advocacy of IGM
was on the rise this year: various proponents advocated it as an
alternative to geoengineering, a military technique, a routine
application for making better children, or even a moral duty to create “designer babies.” Critical discussion of the “eugenic impulse” also broadened, while some (particularly several proponents of synthetic biology) tried perversely to reclaim it as a positive, even ethical, desire.
Prenatal, newborn and other genetic testing
The direct-to-consumer (DTC) gene testing industry attracted some new investment, and controversially began considering whole-genome sequencing, particularly for babies.
The development of private databases that can be sold for research use
began to draw more attention, especially since promises of anonymity
seemed increasingly implausible.
Non-invasive prenatal diagnostic (NIPD) testing, which analyzes fetal DNA circulating in the mother's blood, was shown to be feasible, raising eugenic concerns and complex ethical issues. The marketing of such tests, and the ideology behind them, was questioned in detail on this blog (1, 2, 3).
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