A few years ago, a young man from California’s technology scene began popping up in the world’s leading developmental biology labs. These labs were deciphering the secrets of embryos and had a particular interest in how eggs are formed. Some thought if they discovered that recipe, they would be able to copy it and transmute any cell into an egg.
Their visitor, Matt Krisiloff, said he wanted to help. Krisiloff didn’t know any biology, and he was only 26. But after leading a research program at Y Combinator, the famous startup incubator in San Francisco that was an early funder of such companies as Airbnb and Dropbox, he said, he was “well connected,” with access to wealthy tech investors.
Krisiloff also had a specific interest in the artificial-egg technology. He’s gay, and he knew that theoretically, a cell from a man could be turned into an egg. If that were ever possible, two men could have a child that was genetically related to both. “I was interested in the idea of ‘When can same-sex couples have children together?’” says Krisiloff. “I thought that this was the promising technology for doing this.”
Today the company Krisiloff started, called Conception, is the largest commercial venture pursuing what’s called in vitro gametogenesis, which refers turning adult cells into gametes—sperm or egg cells. It employs around 16 scientists and has raised $20 million from well-known tech figures including Sam Altman, the CEO of OpenAI and former president of Y Combinator; Jaan Tallinn, one of the founders of Skype; and Blake Borgeson, a cofounder of Recursion Pharmaceuticals.
The company is initially trying to make replacement eggs for women. That’s scientifically easier than making eggs from male cells, and it has an obvious market. People are having kids later in life, but a woman’s supply of healthy eggs nosedives in her 30s. It’s a major reason patients visit IVF clinics.
Conception is starting with blood cells from female donors and trying to transform these into the first “proof-of-concept human egg” made in the lab. The company hasn’t done it yet—nor has anyone else. There are still scientific puzzles to overcome, but Krisiloff sent out an email to supporters earlier this year saying his startup might be be “the first in the world to accomplish this goal in the not-too-distant future.” It says that artificial eggs “could become one of the most important technologies ever created.”
That’s no exaggeration. If scientists can generate supplies of eggs, it would break the rules of reproduction as we know them. Women without ovaries—for example, because of cancer or surgery—might be able to have biologically related children. What’s more, lab-made eggs would cancel the age limits on female fertility, allowing women to have related babies at 50, 60, or even beyond.
The prospect of egg cells from a blood draw is profound—and ethically fraught. Conception’s process for making eggs from stem cells has required human fetal tissue. And if reproduction is dissociated from what have been the accepted facts of life, unfamiliar scenarios could result. It opens the door not only for same sex-reproduction, but perhaps even for one individual—or four—to generate an offspring.
More realistically, because the technology could turn eggs into a manufactured resource, it could supercharge the path to designer children. If doctors can make a thousand eggs for a patient, they’ll also be able to fertilize all of them and test to find the best resulting embryos, scoring their genes for future health or intelligence. Such a laboratory process would also permit unfettered genetic editing with DNA engineering tools such as CRISPR. As Conception put it in a pitch sent out earlier this year, the company anticipates that artificial eggs could allow “wide-scale genomic selection and editing in embryos.”
Says Krisiloff: “If you could meaningfully select against Parkinson’s risk, Alzheimer’s risk, I think this then becomes very desirable.” The potential commercial and health payoffs could be huge.
For scientific reasons, turning a man’s cell into a healthy egg is expected to be harder, and Conception hasn’t even tried
By: Antonio Regalado
Title: How Silicon Valley hatched a plan to turn blood into human eggs
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2021/10/28/1038172/conception-eggs-reproduction-vitro-gametogenesis/
Published Date: Thu, 28 Oct 2021 12:40:00 +0000