Just Add Water . . . and Sperm

Just Add Water . . . and Sperm

As an historian of science and medicine, I am always interested in both the histories of and the latest innovations in genetic and reproductive technologies. It is unbelievable how far we’ve come in such a relatively short period of time. These technologies are usually met with a mixture of awe and fascination or resistance and fear—it seems as if sometimes we are witnessing a glimpse into the future, yet it is actually happening in the here and now. I recently came across an article that actually made me stop and say, “Wow, really?” It’s about research into a new reproductive technology, but before I get to it, I want to do a brief background of revolutionary reproductive and genetic technologies that have sparked some intense ethical and moral debates. Specifically, three groundbreaking developments which have women/gender at their very core. Three developments that, as they were occurring, perhaps seemed like they were only futuristic, fantastic things that could never really happen . . . until they did.

Gregory Pincus and Rabbit
Gregory Pincus and Rabbit.
Louise Brown
Louise Brown the first ivf baby. (Daily Mail)

In the 1930s, American biologist and researcher Gregory Pincus (probably best known as the co-inventor of oral contraception, or “The Pill”) conducted controversial experiments with in vitro fertilization (IVF) of rabbit eggs within a test tube. Because his research involved taking an egg and fertilizing it outside the body, Pincus was portrayed in the public as the stereotypical “mad scientist” interfering with nature’s work. However, he did manage to make enough of an impression that his rabbit was featured on the cover of Look magazine in 1937. As a result of his controversial research, he was denied work and funding from leading research institutions and was denied tenure at Harvard University. However, his work led to human application by John Rock and Miriam Menkin (Pincus’ former lab technician). For six years Rock and Menkin worked on the process, trying unsuccessfully to fertilize 138 human ova. Menkin worked tirelessly until February 1944 when she decided to let the sperm stay in contact with the egg for longer than usual and . . . voila! Menkin witnessed the first successful conception to occur outside the human body. Although Rock and Menkin did not transfer the fertilized eggs to a woman, their work generated a great deal of publicity and led the way for biologist, Dr. Robert Edwards, and Dr. Patrick Steptoe, an obstetrician/gynecologist, to make further advancements in IVF technology leading to the world’s first “test tube” baby, Louise Brown, born July 25, 1978.[1] It was technology like this that gave women some control over their bodies and reproduction–if they wanted to have children, but couldn’t for medical reasons. This gave them hope that there was a way to do it.

Dolly the sheep
Dolly the Sheep.

Less than twenty years later, on July 5, 1996, the world bore witness to Dolly the sheep, the first mammal to be cloned from an adult somatic cell. Dolly was cloned at the Roslin Institute in Midlothian, Scotland, where she lived until her death at six years old. Incidentally, or perhaps not-so-incidentally, the name “Dolly,” came from a suggestion of one of the stockmen who assisted at her birth. It was given in honor of Dolly Parton, because it was a mammary cell that was cloned.[2] This landmark of genetic technology led to a raging debate over the ethical implications of human cloning. While some believed cloning to be a groundbreaking advance in genetic technology, many responded with moral outrage and viewed it as an affront to God’s work. And as one historian has already pointed out, what if there were an acceptance of the application of cloning for humans, rendering sperm no longer necessary for reproduction? This could mean that men could be “sidelined or cut out of the reproductive cycle altogether, consigned to the scrap heap of history.”[3] What in the world would happen to our patriarchal structure? What would that mean for “traditional marriage” then? At any rate, cloning technology raises a whole host of questions, implications, and debates and it makes one think about the futuristic scientific breakthroughs that you may not think will happen, until it does.

The third reproductive/genetic technology innovation I want to touch upon is oocyte cryopreservation—egg freezing. Egg freezing, no longer deemed experimental by the American Society for Reproductive Health, now has an overall fertilization rate of between 71 and 79 percent, with implantation rates between 17 and 41 percent, and pregnancy rates between 36 and 61 percent. Many women choose to have eggs extracted, frozen, and stored for a variety of personal or medical reasons. When a woman chooses, her eggs can be thawed, fertilized, and transferred to her uterus. While this technology is beneficial for women who need it for medical reasons and it also gives women control over when they want to have children (especially if they want to wait until later in life), there is a hefty price for this technology. It can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000 for the initial outpatient procedure of retrieving the eggs—which insurance doesn’t cover because it is an elective procedure. There is also a yearly storage fee wherever they are stored cryogenically. When a woman chooses to have them transplanted, she will spend thousands of dollars in IVF procedures. So the overall cost is often out of range for many women who want to have children, but cannot due to various circumstances. Of course, if you are Sofía Vergara you can obviously afford to freeze your “perfect, perfect, perfect,” eggs. However, there might be a low-cost method on the horizon for those women who cannot afford to freeze their own perfect eggs.

IVF Laboratory. (Wikimedia)

Which leads me to our latest development in reproductive technology. As a person who loves wave-of-the-future, cutting-edge type stuff, even I had to do a double-take when I first read this article on “powdered eggs.” There is an Israeli cryopreservation company, Core Dynamics, where researchers have developed a method of freeze-drying eggs so that they can be kept at room temperature almost indefinitely in sealed sachets. The end goal is that women would be able to freeze-dry their eggs and then keep them indefinitely at their homes, until they were ready to have children. This would eliminate the cost of storing the eggs in a cryopreservation facility. In addition, you could take them with you wherever you go. Researcher, Dr Amir Arav states, “You can keep the powder at room temperature forever and just add water to bring it back to life.” Arav claims that his company’s process avoids the expense and complications of storage in liquid nitrogen. During such refrigeration, ice crystals can damage cellular membranes. Researchers used the process to freeze-dry thirty cow eggs. When the eggs were rehydrated, twenty-three of them were found to be still viable. The company plans to next prove that the rehydrated eggs can then be fertilized and grown into viable young calves. They then hope to apply the method to human eggs. Dr. Arave believes that if success rates are higher, freeze-drying eggs will prove effective and cost efficient. I can’t imagine that this newest reproductive technology, once more people hear about it, will go without debate. The thought of simply being able to rehydrate a human egg, which will then evolve into a viable complex human being may be a difficult hurdle to overcome in selling it for public consumption. It does sort of remind me somewhat of the futuristic sci-fi rehydrator in Back to the Future 2 or the 1966 Batman movie where the villains were rehydrated. However, this, like all the fantastic technologies before it, seems almost unimaginable—that’s what makes it so amazing when it happens. So, you may be able to skip the inconvenience and expense of storing eggs in a cryopreservation facility . . . just have them in a sealed sachet, toss them in your sock drawer, and whenever you’re ready for children, your eggs are ready too—just add water . . . and sperm.


[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/timeline/babies/

[2] http://www.roslin.ed.ac.uk/public-interest/dolly-the-sheep/a-life-of-dolly/

[3] Lisa Jardine, Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution (New York: Anchor Books, 1999), 2.

Featured image caption: Intracytoplasmic Sperm Injection. (Image Editor/Flickr)