Calif.'s Fertility Flap and the Future of Reproductive Tech
Feb 6, 2009 4:00 AM PT
The news of octuplets born recently near Los Angeles shocked many people, especially since the mother, Nadya Suleman, apparently already had six children and is reported to be jobless and living with her parents. Such rare stories certainly sell newspapers, but they can also lead to knee-jerk calls for overly restrictive regulation, which threaten freedom and innovation.
Already, comment boards and blogs around the Web are rife with calls for greater government oversight of the reproductive technology field. Yet Nadya Suleman's story is atypical and obscures the great strides being made in assisted reproduction due to the reality that the field is relatively free from bureaucratic interference. An international comparison illustrates this point.
Across the Pond
Last month, UK newspapers were gushing with the news of the first British baby to be genetically screened before conception for a breast cancer gene. This is great news for the baby, who will now avoid a 50 to 85 percent chance of developing breast cancer, but it is old news for people living in the United States. According to Sean Tipton of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, screening for the BRCA1 cancer gene in embryos has been "common practice for at least five years in the U.S." If that's the case, why is Britain only seeing its first baby pre-screened for a damaging cancer gene now? The answer is regulation.
In the UK, where government monopoly health care prevails, parents don't have the final word on what they can screen for -- even if the technology exists. Permission to screen the British embryo for the breast cancer gene had to first be obtained from the UK Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority before the London clinic performed the procedure.
In America, such permission isn't needed, and because of that, there is a thriving market to develop the best and most accurate tests. These screen not only for chromosomal disorders but genetic mutations that cause devastating problems like cancer, early onset dementia, cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease.
That's not to say that the field is completely unregulated, as some may assume.
Tipton points out that "states license all practitioners and the federal government approves all drugs and also determines how to handle reproductive tissues." In addition, there are laws in place for reporting in vitro fertilization (IVF) pregnancies to the federal government. It will be interesting to see if a U.S.-based clinic implanted the embryos in Suleman, or if that took place somewhere else, perhaps Mexico. Either way, a heavy-handed response in this area is not the answer. This is not a brewing crisis -- most women do not want eight children, neither at once nor in total.
One of the reasons reproductive technology took off in the first place is that regulation has been light and demand strong -- and this success comes despite a Congressional ban on government funding. Combine that with the relatively unregulated nature of Silicon Valley and you get double the benefits.
Moore's Law + Entrepreneurship - Regulations
Consider the case of Redwood City-based Gene Security Networks (GSN), which just received US$6 million in series B funding from Claremont Creek Ventures, Sequoia Capital, and Alafi Capital.
The company's technology makes huge improvements on current IVF offerings. For one thing, they can actually test all 23 chromosomes within 24 hours, and they can do it at the same time as they screen for multiple genetic diseases -- a true revolution in the field that will help families plagued by disease. Because they are using computer modeling technology and human genome data, they also have fewer errors.
"We came at the biology problem from an engineering perspective," says Matthew Rabinowitz, GSN's president and CEO. Indeed, much of the best work in biology is happening at the intersection of computing and biology, and IVF is no exception. Moore's law combined with an entrepreneurial spirit and a light regulatory structure is helping thousands of couples all over the nation.
Despite a history of progress and happy stories, some will still argue that IVF procedures need government intervention to prevent reportedly obsessive-compulsive mothers like Nadya Suleman from having too many children. If that's the case, says Gregory Pence, a bioethics professor at the medical school at the University of Alabama, the answer should be a short, targeted, addition to current rules requiring clinics to implant only two embryos at a time, the current industry standard.
Perhaps that is a reasonable compromise, but the government should not mount a surge of intervention in what many view as a personal decision. If it does, the innovation and technologies that help promote healthier families could be at risk.
Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.