The ethics of experimentation: Brown U. prof analyzes controversial science

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – There’s a new science on the horizon that’s so controversial three experts – including one from Brown University – have been tasked with studying the ethics of that technology.

The technology has a cumbersome name: in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). But, Brown University professor Dr. Eli Adashi, the school’s former dean of medicine and one of the three experts, said it’s unlike anything he’s seen.

“It’s mind-boggling,” Adashi said. “I still feel that way whenever I talk about it.”

Right now, IVG is being studied on rodents in Japan and the United Kingdom. The technology reprograms one kind of cell into a different kind of cell.

“Of course, everybody who is interested in stem cells is hoping that we will create lungs so that we can replace lung tissue, create hearts so that we can replace heart tissue,” said Adashi.

So far, scientists have reported successes in creating egg and sperm cells from non-reproductive cells, like skin. If researchers are successful, this technology could one day eliminate the need for male and female reproductive organs for the creation of life.

Dr. Adashi told Eyewitness News that there’s a real possibility this discovery could be adapted for humans, but that a legal, ethical, and political conversation should happen now, before the technology advances any further.

“Now is the time to have a conversation,” Adashi said. “Not against a backdrop of a technology that is already here.”

He said a possible advantage of the research would be for people unable to have children, to have an option to do so.

“If you could take a skin cell from the individuals and create eggs and sperm that they no longer have intrinsically, you could potentially allow victims of cancer build a family,” he said.

He added that the technology could be used for a variety of other benefits such as creating nerve cells to bypass paralysis of the spinal cord.

The ethical evaluation of such a scientific development includes concerns over egg harvesting.

“You move from the normal situation where women ovulate a single egg every cycle or [with] in vitro [fertilization] where at the most you would secure 15- 20 eggs,” Adashi said. “Here you end up with potentially thousands of eggs and you have to ask yourself if this is something we want to get into as a people.”

There is no time table for when the research could move from mice to humans. The findings, however, are being increasingly noticed around the world.