We could be the last generation to have children the old fashioned way, if at all
Infinite healthspan and artificial eggs and sperm could change our idea of family
At Transhumanism Australia, we have given several talks on the future of human health, the latest being at TEDxMelbourne. This article talks about the future of reproduction.
Humans today are living longer and healthier lives than ever. The oldest known human lived to 122. Some researchers such as well known biogerontologist, Aubrey de Grey, believe we could extend healthy human lifespan to 1000 years and eventually live forever.
While achieving 1000 could be a long way off, with the latest developments in biotechnology, most people in the generation could potentially live to at least 122.
In addition to living longer, artificial eggs, sperm and wombs could soon be available to humans. This brings with it the potential to delay childbearing almost indefinitely.
As health extension therapies and lab babies become reality, our idea of what family and gender is could be upended and this may dramatically change people’s goals in life.
Traditional goals of a good job, marriage and kids could be thrown out the window, and an increasing number of people may choose not to have children at all.
Fertility is already declining as standard of living increases
It’s predicted childless couples will become Australia’s most common family type by 2030, so it appears many people are already choosing not to have children. It is likely that advances in health technology may reinforce this trend.
For those that want children, a woman’s age is a huge driving force for deciding when to start reproducing. Some studies say a woman’s fertility starts declining rapidly from age 30.
However, this ticking of the biological clock might soon be a thing of the past. The window of fertility could increase with extended healthspans, while artificial eggs and sperm could allow couples to create biological children, regardless of the age or health of parents.
Clearing dead cells through senolytics could increase our healthspan
Senolytics is a type of therapy that clears senescent cells in our body, which are cells that have stopped dividing and which can harm other healthy cells. This therapy has attracted lots of attention and funding lately.
Unity Biotechnology is working on a number of drugs that clear senescent cells. The first is to treat osteoarthritis, which has entered human trials. Unity are also developing drugs to treat diabetic and age induced eye degeneration, declining cognition, kidney disease and some lung diseases in the near future. The risk of developing these diseases increases with age.
The premise of senolytics is that it reverses damage caused by senescent cells. As you age, your body accumulates senescent cells resulting in a number of age related diseases. Senolytic therapies find and destroy these cells.
3D printing organs could help extend our life and health
3D printed organs have been hailed as a solution to the organ shortage crisis, while also giving people a chance of a longer healthier life. This technology uses organic material such as stem cells to create organs that replicate and operate like human organs.
Prellis Biologics’s technology is bringing 3D printed organs closer to being a real option for those on the transplant list. They have developed a way to do near instantaneous 3D printing, in addition to the ability to replicate the complex capillary structures needed to supply nutrients and oxygen to tissues.
It is likely humans can get less complex parts like tendon and ligaments 3D printed much sooner than organs like hearts and stomachs which are more complex to print. The beauty of 3D printed organs is that it can be custom matched to the person needing that body part.
The future of human reproduction with lab created eggs and sperm
A woman’s egg and a man’s sperm may no longer be required to create a baby. Stem cells can now be converted into artificial eggs and sperm. This can simply be done by taking cells from your skin, turning that into stem cells and then manipulating them into eggs and sperm. All this can be done outside of a human’s body.
Two Japanese scientists first conducted this experiment in mice by taking cells from a mouse’s tail, reprogramming them into stem cells and then creating eggs from them. Their work is documented in the science journal, Nature.
Scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Zoology and Kyushu University have already proven creation of artificial sperm can be done in mice. The artificial sperm was then injected into mouse eggs. This resulted in embryos which were then implanted into the female mice. Healthy baby mice were born.
Researchers in the US, Japan and China are now looking at how they can reproduce these same results for humans. When available, this could be helpful for those that are infertile.
Babies could potentially be grown outside a woman’s body
The creation of artificial wombs could make the option of growing babies outside of a woman’s body a reality.
We already have some form of an artificial womb in incubators. These are used for premature babies who need help to develop and survive. Today’s incubators can only support babies born at 23 weeks onwards and are not designed to grow an embryo to a full term baby. Artificial wombs will allow an embryo to be brought to full term.
At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, premature lambs have already been grown to full term using artificial wombs. These wombs are filled with a substance similar to amniotic fluid, a protective fluid that cushions the fetus and helps it access nutrients and expel waste. There is also an artificial placenta to provide nutrients to the lamb.
Ethical concerns for reproduction in a lab
Some may oppose the idea of lab-created eggs and sperm, however it will not stop progress.
What one country is opposed to, another may embrace. For example while the US was slow at allowing modification of human genes via CRISPR, a gene editing technology, China has already pushed through with human CRISPR trials to treat a number of diseases including lung cancer, diabetes and Alzheimer’s. It is likely that some countries may oppose it at first but will likely play catch up when they see what’s at stake economically.
Family structure and society could change dramatically
This beings us back to how these biotech developments could upend our idea of what family and gender is.
This would mean same sex couples could have children who are biologically related to both of them. It would also mean a parent could be both the biological mother and father of their child as a person can create eggs and sperms made up entirely of their own cells. It would mean women no longer need to carry babies, as a child can be grown outside of the human body.
Importantly, the desire for and time frame for having children could rapidly change. If people are no longer confined to specific time frames, people may delay till very late in their lives or not have children at all.
People may choose to spend more of their time pursuing their hobbies and passions, and there will always be businesses and entrepreneurs who will cater to this changing society.
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