Foreseeing bioethical problems is one responsibility of the UK think tank, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics. It has just released three background papers on increased lifespan, dual use in biology and biomedicine, and artificial gametes.
The last of these is particularly interesting, in view of the hubbub over the rapid advances in gene editing, which could accelerate research in this field. Artificial gametes are eggs and sperm produced from other cells. There has been some success with creating them for mice, but not with humans — yet. Success is probably many years away. But as the authors point out, the time to prepare is now.
Written by Anna Smajdor, of the University of East Anglia and Daniela Cutas, of Umeå University, in Sweden. the white paper is “necessarily speculative” and does not recommend specific policies. But it does outline some of the opportunities and hazards that lie ahead.
Artificial gametes could be useful for research into infertility. But the four ways in which they could be used in reproduction are far more controversial: for pre-pubescent children who have been rendered infertile because of cancer treatment; for women whose eggs are exhausted after the menopause; for single women; and for gay and lesbian couples.
What are the benefits? Some bioethicists hail artificial gametes as “democratising reproduction” for anyone who wants offspring. But first and foremost is relief from involuntary childlessness, although as Smajdor and Cutas point out, this entrenches the privileging of genetic ties between parents and children, which many bioethicists question.
The medical hazards would be considerable, at least initially, and these are regarded by many bioethicists as the only real ethical obstacle to any technique in artificial reproduction.
The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.