Sunday, August 02, 2015

partial ectogenesis exists..., let the pearl-clutching and vapor-catching begin

geneticliteracyproject |  Scientifically, it’s calledectogenesis, a term coined by J.B.S. Haldane in 1924. A hugely influential science popularizer, Haldane did for his generation what Carl Sagan did later in the century. He got people thinking and talking about the implications of science and technology on our civilization, and did not shy away from inventing new words in order to do so. Describing ectogenesis as pregnancy occurring in an artificial environment, from fertilization to birth, Haldane predicted that by 2074 this would account for more than 70 percent of human births. 

His prediction may yet be on target.
In discussing the idea in his work Daedalus–a reference to the inventor in Greek mythology who, through his inventions, strived to bring humans to the level of the gods–Haldane was diving into issues of his time, namely eugenics and the first widespread debates over contraception and population control.
Whether Haldane’s view will prove correct about the specific timing of when ectogenesis might become popular, or the numbers of children born that way, it’s certain that he was correct that tAt the same time, he was right that the societal implications are sure to be significant as the age of motherless birth approaches. They will not be the same societal implications that were highlighted in Daedalus, however. 
Technology developing in increments
Where are we on the road to ectogenesis right now? To begin, progress has definitely been rapid over the last 20-30 years. In the mid 1990s, Japanese investigators succeeded in maintaining goat fetuses for weeks in a machine containing artificial amniotic fluid. At the same time, the recent decades have seen rapid advancement in neonatal intensive care that is pushing back the minimum gestational age from which human fetuses can be kept alive. Today, it is possible for a preterm fetus to survive when removed from the mother at a gestational age of slightly less than 22 weeks. That’s only a little more than halfway through the pregnancy (normally 40 weeks). And while rescuing an infant delivered at such an early point requires sophisticated, expensive equipment and care, the capability continues to increase.
A comprehensive review published by the New York Academy of Sciencesthree years ago highlights a series of achievements by various research groups using ex vivo (out of the body) uterus environments to support mammalian fetuses early in pregnancy. Essentially, two areas of biotechnology are developing rapidly that potentially can enable ectogenesis in humans, and, along the way, what the authors of the Academy review callpartial ectogenesis.