Louise Brown, the first test-tube baby, was born 30 years ago this month after being conceived outside the body using in vitro fertilization (IVF). Helen Pearson asks what developments in reproductive medicine could have an equivalent impact in the next three decades.
Next I expect that germ cells — sperm and eggs — will be successfully derived from induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells [cells that have the potential to develop into any of the body’s cell types]. It will be possible to make iPS cells from skin cells, to make germ cells from these, and then combine them to make human embryos. It means every person regardless of age will be able to have children: newborn children could have children and 100-year olds could have children. It could easily happen in the next 30 years. I have no idea if the technique will be used, but it means you could have millions of gametes that could be combined at will. Today you can’t experiment on human embryos because it’s considered morally repugnant — and they are difficult to get. If embryos could be grown in culture like any other cell line, this latter problem would disappear. It would mean you could introduce any kind of genetic modification. The cell lines could be used to correct a mutation or to engineer an improvement, and used to make a mutant embryo for research purposes. They’d become like any other type of cell line. They would become objects and would be used as objects.
I have no idea what kind of moral value or rights we would give to those embryos. We’ll probably go through the same agonizing we did with IVF. It could be terrible to begin with, but then it’ll become a fact of life. Maybe 20–30 years from now we’ll read in newspapers that someone made 20,000 embryos and studied their development, and we’ll decide it’s OK.