Special Briefing: The Future of Fertility
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is about the future of the human race.
WHAT TO KNOW
What’s happening? One in 7 couples worldwide struggles with infertility, and the medical industry aimed at helping them is now worth $16.7 billion. That’s not just in vitro fertilization — it includes delving into the causes of infertility, like plummeting sperm counts and endometriosis. OZY’s peeked into the labs of some of fertility science’s most futuristic thinkers to get a look at what they’re working on, and what might be impeding their progress.
Why does it matter? Abortion isn’t the only reproductive health issue that’s been explicitly politicized in recent years. Personhood bills could decimate ongoing fertility research, while health care regulations could impinge on the ability of U.S. families to afford IVF and other treatments for infertility. And with many anticipating that Roe v. Wade could be overturned if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed to the Supreme Court, reproductive rights are top of mind for anyone considering pregnancy and parenthood.
HOW TO THINK ABOUT IT
Baby driver. For many, news that sperm counts in Western countries have dropped 50 percent since 1981 is cause to prepare for human extinction. For Dr. Sarah Martins da Silva, it’s just another challenge: The Scottish research program she leads has developed a drug-screening method that’s allowed her team to test 3,400 compounds on human sperm — and they’ve already identified two promising drugs that could help sperm swim better and avert a potential male fertility crisis.
A womb with a view. Endometriosis, suffered by an estimated 176 million women worldwide, is an agonizing condition that can lead to infertility. Some patients wait as long as a decade for a clear diagnosis, as doctors painstakingly eliminate all other options before undertaking invasive tests to determine if they have endometriosis. In what doctors are calling a game changer, DotLab founder Heather Bowerman says the company will release a simple blood or saliva test later this year that offers the promise of early detection of the poorly understood condition, saving women years of discomfort and the risk of infertility.
Gone, baby, gone. As conservative ideologies about abortion gain even more political traction, personhood bills — which give human rights to embryos — have become the new normal. But those very bills may be spelling disaster for infertile couples, as doctors conducting research on embryos to enhance human fertility are deterred from their work by the threat of prosecution. To mitigate the damage, some doctors are going straight to the legislators, hoping to educate them about the chilling scientific implications of their bills.
Fetus first. Dr. Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz’s groundbreaking research into how embryos develop was sparked by complications with her own pregnancy at the age of 42. But 12 years later — with a healthy kid in tow — she’s still questing to unlock the mysteries of human embryos. The Cambridge professor successfully cultured a human embryo in the lab for longer than anyone had before — a feat Science hailed as the Breakthrough of the Year, and that may help explain why pregnancies sometimes fail in the early stages.
WHAT TO READ
Sperm Count Zero, by Daniel Noah Halpern in GQ
“Assuming that we’re unable to wean ourselves off plastics and other marvels of modern science, we may be stuck innovating our way out of this mess. How long we’re able to outrun the drop in sperm count may depend, finally, on how good we get at IVF and other fertility treatments.”
My IVF Life, by Jean Hannah Edelstein in The Guardian
“Someone puts a photo of the embryo on a screen that I can see while I’m lying back on the procedure table: a grey blob of cells. I remember not to get attached.”
WHAT TO WATCH
Your Skin Cells Could Make a Baby, Will This Be the End of Infertility?
“This could pave the way for two adults of any sex or gender to combine their DNA and produce their own biological offspring.”
Watch on Seeker on YouTube:
The Most Common Disease You’ve Never Heard Of
“With endometriosis, there are two vortexes that a woman has to go through. The first is this long delay to diagnosis, and the second is finding effective treatment.”
Watch at Tedx Talks on YouTube:
WHAT TO SAY AT THE WATERCOOLER
Million-dollar baby. The mind-blowing expense of IVF, which costs an average of $10,000 per cycle and often requires multiple cycles, has prompted labs to focus on upping the procedure’s success rate. That includes examining embryos’ mitochondrial DNA to identify duds, screening them through time-lapse imaging — and hoping that artificial intelligence might someday be used to select the winners from a photo lineup.