For most of our time on this planet humans could reproduce in one way—by having sex. Next came the first fertility treatments. And now, in the past year alone, scientists have revealed one after another truly astounding paths to making babies, from a method that uses DNA from same-sex parents to penis transplants!
While still in their early stages, these new techniques promise to change how our species sees procreation forever—and raise confounding ethical questions that our society has never before faced.
"The advances in genomics and reproductive medicine have the potential to prevent disease and promote health," Dr. Alan Copperman, a reproductive endocrinologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, told me of the past year's revelations. "But our society is appropriately moving cautiously as we assess the safety and efficacy genomic alterations."
Whether you're interested in taking advantage of the methods yourself—or terrified by the science fiction realness of it all—see what this year taught us about the future of baby making.
Last February, the United Kingdom became the first country to legalize "three parent babies," a controversial in-vitro fertilization technique in which a child receives genetic material from two women and one man. The procedure is meant to prevent mitochondrial disease—which can lead to everything from multiple sclerosis-like conditions to early death—from being passed on to the unborn baby.
Here’s how it works: During the embryonic stage, the mother's problematic mitochondria is replaced with healthy mitochondria from a female donor. Mitochondria are the tiny powerhouses of cells, so it’s kind of like replacing a faulty battery in your car with an off-brand model. The car itself doesn’t actually change—just the battery. (For more on how this works, check out our visual guide.)
However, some critics argue that the procedure contains unknown risks, since mitochondria contains DNA, and the third parent's DNA is technically being passed on to the child. But those in favor of the procedure argue that mitochondrial DNA itself doesn’t code for core traits such as personality or appearance, and the process is worth it to prevent a horrific disease.
Scientists recently revealed that they are developing techniques that would allow same-sex parents to create a child that shares both of their DNA. The procedure is called in-vitro gametogenesis, and it involves using embryonic stem cells to create sex cells—this would mean growing eggs from a man’s stem cells or sperm from a woman’s stem cells.
How? Embryonic stem cells are able to morph—or differentiate—which means they can develop into a range of specialized cells. These cells are kind of like raw clay that can be molded into nearly whatever shape you want.
However, the technique is brand-spanking new and has not been tested on human cells yet, only mice. If it's perfected, however, it wouldn’t just help same-sex couples have families—it could also help women who lack eggs or men who can't produce sperm. More controversially, it could also theoretically allow a single parent to create offspring on his or her own, giving new meaning to "self love."
A company called OvaScience is trying to perfect a procedure that would allow women to grow new eggs from a type of stem cell discovered in the lining of the ovaries, in a process similar to the one that would allow same-sex parents to make babies.
The technique is called OvaPrime, and theoretically, it works by extracting stem cells from a woman's ovarian lining—and then transferring them to her ovaries, where they mature into eggs.
This process could, of course, change the concept of the biological clock as we know it. For all of human history, women have been born with a set number of eggs that dwindles as we age, until we are no longer able to have children. OvaPrime would extend women's reproductive lives—if, and that’s a big if, they can get the procedure to work.
OvaScience is also working on a technique called AUGMENT that "reenergizes" older eggs through mitochondrial transfer—the same procedure used to create "three parent babies."
The technique is based on the theory that some women have trouble getting pregnant because the mitochondria in their eggs is breaking down and can no longer produce enough energy for pregnancy. By replacing their mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor female, the women can boost their chances of becoming pregnant.
The technique made headlines last May after it helped a previously infertile couple in Canada give birth to a healthy baby boy, and it's currently being used in countries from Europe to the Middle East, but the FDA has yet to green light it in the United States. The jury is still out on whether the pricey procedure is as promising as it sounds—much more research is needed.
In June, a group of physicians revealed that a 27-year-old woman had given birth after undergoing an ovarian tissue transplant. Even more incredible, the tissue transplanted into her body was her own—it had been frozen a decade earlier.
When the woman was 13 years old, she had undergone chemotherapy to treat sickle cell anemia. Hoping to preserve her future fertility against the harsh effects of the treatment, doctors removed her right ovary and cryopreserved several fragments—before she'd even had her first period. Then a decade later, when the woman wanted to have a child, they thawed the tissue and grafted it onto her left ovary. Before too long, her body began to produce viable eggs, and she became pregnant. Doctors hope the procedure will someday help other young girls forced to undergo chemotherapy and radiation preserve their fertility as well.
New advances are also leading us closer and closer to creating what have been controversially dubbed “designer babies." The technology is called CRISPR, and it's a gene editing platform that can be used to create babies that are free of certain diseases—as well as more intelligent or better looking—by slicing and dicing their DNA for specific traits.
While the technique has been used on mice, we’re still a few years away from successfully using it on humans. “This advance has not yet been used in humans, but if proven safe and effective, CRISPR has the potential to correct mutant genes, reverse disease symptoms, and possibly help train the body’s human system to fight dangerous infections," says Copperman. Of course, the advance also brings up a host of ethical questions.
Last spring, doctors in South Africa reported that they had successfully completed a penis transplant on a patient who had had his member amputated as a life-saving measure. The surgery, which took place in December 2014, took nine hours to complete. Then, in June, the patient’s girlfriend announced that she was pregnant.
The landmark surgery marked the second time doctors had attempted a penis transplant. The first attempt, which took place in China, failed. Once the procedure is perfected, it holds immense promise in helping men who've been injured regain reproductive function.
In November, doctors announced the first clinical trial for uterine transplants. This procedure may someday help women born without a uterus, women who've lost their uterus, and women with uteruses that no longer function have children.
Several uterine transplants have been completed worldwide already, including one that resulted in a live birth in 2014. However, the procedure is still considered experimental. It should also be noted that unlike other organ transplants, these transplants are meant to be temporary—only lasting long enough to allow a woman to reproduce.
The procedure has also led some to wonder if men could someday receive transplanted uteruses and give birth. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.