This day (July 25), thirty years ago, little Louise Brown created history. She was the first baby to be born through in vitro fertilisation (IVF), a technique where eggs and sperms taken out from the human body are fertilised in a laboratory.
There was much uproar and misgivings at that point, but the technique came to be slowly accepted. Thousands of such babies have since been born.
The science of meddling with eggs and sperms outside the body has not only matured, but has grown to offer possibilities that were unimaginable earlier. Surrogate mothers; using donated sperms or eggs by couples or single women to have babies; storing eggs or sperms for use at a later date or by those about to undergo radiation therapy for cancer… the list goes on. And almost every development faced some resistance and opposition by sections of society.
The big turning point in reproductive technology came in 1996 when Dolly the sheep was born. It marked a major step as it allowed scientists to create life by using any adult cell and not depend on sperm to fertilise eggs. In Dolly’s case, a cell from the mammary gland was used.
If it could be used to create a mammal, the day was not far when humans could be created the same way. It opened up the possibility of creating identical individuals. The breakthrough also opened a can of worms. Cloning became a bad word, and predictions of many Hitlers being created were flashed in the media.
Though the possibility, even if remote, of creating human clones exists, the technique has till date not been used for any such purpose. But it opened up the possibility of either using surplus embryos or creating new ones specifically to extract stem cells — the primary cells from which specialised cells, such as heart muscle cells or liver cells, are produced.
This opened new avenues to treat or cure diseases. When an adult cell from a diseased person is used to create an embryo, the stem cells extracted from it can be used to treat his or her disease. Unlike reproductive cloning, therapeutic cloning has not met with much resistance.
Alternatively, embryonic stem cells can be used to study the way diseases in a particular organ occur or progress. This will help produce better drugs. These are still at the research level, though.
While scientists around the world have voluntarily agreed not to use the technique for reproductive purposes, cloning for therapeutic purposes appears to be a promising field. Reproductive technology that was started solely to address infertility has expanded to finding cures for certain diseases.
Every time opposition came up, scientists found a way to get around it. Therapeutic cloning has been opposed on ethical grounds. Many human eggs are required to produce one embryo as the technique is not yet perfected. But scientists soon found an alternative where human eggs would not be required. They came up with the idea of producing hybrid embryos — using animal eggs in place of human eggs.
All this will not remain in the realm of science fiction as the U.K. is about to pass a Bill that would allow scientists to do precisely this. There is one more Bill, which when passed, would permit scientists to look for any genetic disorders in the embryo created through IVF before implanting it in the mother. This will be particularly useful when one of the parents suffers a genetic disease.
And by taking the idea further, an embryo can be designed to ensure that it has a near-perfect tissue match for an older sibling suffering from a disease caused by a genetic disorder. Many such saviour siblings have been created.
What future possibilities the reproductive technology can offer is not known. But one thing is clear: how an embryo created outside the mother can be used is restricted more by one’s imagination than science.