Category Archives: Fertility

Genetically Predisposed to be an Egg Donor?

New research says that “niceness” may be part of our genetic make up, that we are predisposed to be kind and generous because our DNA contains genes that control the function of oxytocin and vasopressin receptors, receptors for hormones that play a role in our maternal instincts, attitudes about civic duty, and responsibility to others.

I say we because this article makes me wonder if sperm and egg donors like me, and like those mentioned in the article that were more likely to be “giving blood, working for charity or going to PTA meetings,” were genetically predisposed toward donation. More than one chapter of my memoir addresses why I chose to become an egg donor, and for me, the underlying theme was generosity. I saw it as “one level up from” giving blood, with even greater impact in someone’s life.

Photo by Duncan on Flickr.

If I take my Wilde 🙂 speculation one level further, are children conceived from donor eggs and sperm statistically “nicer” because they got half their DNA from these generous people? And if so, are our populations slowly evolving toward kindness and generosity? Gosh, I hope so. I guess only time will tell.

BPA Links to Infertility

When the fertility doctor broke the news to us that my husband was struggling with his fertility, our first question was, “What’s causing it?” We wanted to know how we ended up there, and whether something could be done to solve the issue. The doctor explained that rarely do families determine the actual cause of infertility issues. A few expensive tests (often not covered by health insurance) are available to check the function of a woman’s reproductive system, but for most people who suffer through it, no explanation is found and doctors are left to simply treat the symptoms with fertility drugs or, as in our case, suggest the use of egg and/or sperm donors and adoption.

My first instinct was to suspect chemical exposure through his job as an auto technician. He’s touched and breathed an array of toxic chemicals over more than 25 years to maintain other people’s cars. My initial assumption was part of a culturally pervasive idea that increases in infertility could be due in part to subtle exposure to toxic chemicals in our environment.

One industrial chemical (and subsequent environmental pollutant), Bisphenol-A (BPA), found in hard plastics and known as an estrogen-disruptor and for its negative effects on the heart and central nervous system, has also recently been linked to changes in immune response within the uterus. Because of its chemical similarity to the hormone estradiol in the body, BPA binds to proteins meant to interact with estradiol.

Many Washingtonians are familiar with BPA because it was part of a phased ban in Washington State in 2010. By July 1, 2012, no one can make or sell reusable sports bottles, sippy cups, or baby bottles containing BPA in the state. Last year, Oregon considered a similar ban that would also add baby formula containers to the list along with warning labels to consumers.

New research in the March Journal of Reproductive Toxicology shows that mice exposed to BPA in their food can experience bacterial infections in the uterus (pyometra), a condition observed in cats and dogs.

Whether a causal link exists between BPA and human uterine infertility is too soon to tell. The study focused on pathological changes and not fertility rates and uterine changes due to BPA exposure haven’t been scientifically demonstrated in humans. However, this research will continue the scientific quest to understand what role subtle environmental exposures have on human fertility rates. My guess is that once the data are finally in, the list of toxic chemicals effecting fertility will be much longer than we ever suspected.

Egg Donation and Citizenship

Just found this USA Today article  about the denial of citizenship to a pair of twins born in Tel Aviv to a U.S. citizen because the eggs used in her in vitro fertilization were not from a U.S. citizen. I don’t even know how I feel about it. Holy cow batman. Just when I thought it couldn’t get more complicated. What do you think?

More Fertility Help On the Horizon

Although the authors of a new Swedish study suggest it will be ten years before this technology is available to the public, a new molecule Cdk1 has been discovered that can help the maturation of mammalian eggs.

Women whose bodies are unable to produce mature eggs can not currently be helped by in vitro Fertilization (IVF).

With the success rates for fertility treatments growing steadily via discovery of new technologies and greater understanding, the term “struggling with infertility” might soon become a faint memory.

IVF Success Rate Increasing

According to this article at FoxNews.com, a new method has been developed that could increase in vitro Fertilization (IVF) success rates from 32-35% to 45%. The new method uses incubators in the handling process to maintain eggs and embryos in conditions similar to those in a woman’s body.

One might think, “Of course, why didn’t they think of that sooner?” But working with microscopic cells in a controlled environment while continuously looking through a microscope is a lot more elaborate and expensive than it might sound. Below is a photo of the standard method without incubators.

This increase in success rate could mean so much to families who choose IVF: fewer disappointments and subsequent attempts equals fewer $$’s spent on those attempts, and potentially shorter backlogs at the doctor’s office.

Letting Go

Check out my post over at Easy to Love But Hard to Raise today. I write about learning to let go of the dreams of “normal” and the grief that comes with lost dreams.

Religion and Assisted Reproduction

Although faith wasn’t a consideration for me when I chose to become an egg donor, nor when we chose to use a sperm donor, for some religion can be a major force when contemplating fertility options.

Check out Ellen Painter Dollar’s piece in yesterday’s Huffington Post offering tips to people of faith when they’re considering infertility and assisted reproduction.

Dollar expands on her discussion of tip #2, moral questions, in her blog post, and further in her new book No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Parenthood, and Faith in an Age of Advanced Reproduction.

Like many aspects of our lives, the decision on how we become parents can be complex and nuanced, where right and wrong are moving targets that depend on where you’re standing. Dollar is stimulating the discussion and brave to tackle it head on.

Photo courtesy of www.yourspiritualfaith.com.

Truly Modern Family = Three Parents?

Approaching the stuff of science fiction novels, a January 20 article in UK’s Mail Online by Tamara Cohen reported that a new in vitro Fertilization (IVF) technique could produce embryos within the next two years that are made up of genetic material from three parents.

Graphic from Dawn of the Designer Babies with Three Parents and No Hereditary Diseases by Fiona Macrae, Mail Online, 15 April, 2010.

The article emphasizes that this new approach is meant to help couples conceive without the risk of incurable diseases like muscular dystrophy, but laws in some countries prohibit the use of this technique for ethical reasons.

As a scientist, I find ground-breaking research that can eliminate genetic disease worthy of Nobel consideration. This article reminds me of how we felt when cloning and stem cell research first entered the public consciousness. At first rare and practiced only in controlled settings, these techniques are no longer so mysterious and mystical, but instead something that a good doctor or scientist can learn and do after a few weeks of training. The article rightly focuses on long-term ethical regulation of the technique.

Exactly where is the line and are we even getting close to it? I surely don’t know. We used to call them test-tube babies. We used to think of sex selection as something only done in sci-fi novels, and yet now every fertility specialist in the U.S. has access to these techniques. Right or wrong depends a lot on your point of view. Is it such a leap to think that 30 years from now, we’ll be making TV-ready intellectual super-babies, free of predispositions to diseases and possessing the optimal genetics of Olympic athletes?

Luckily I found this article by Genetic Counselor Allie Janson Hazell from last week, The Myth of the Designer Baby, that made me feel a little better. She, like me, hopes that we’ll never learn to manipulate genes at that level and that even if we do, we won’t actually use the technology in that way.

Of course, knowing how and actually taking the steps are two very different things, but without regulation and the potential for this to become a money-making venture, we can’t be sure some trippy version of this fantasy won’t happen someday.

I’m sure someone out there, as I write this, is working on this as the plot of their new novel. Hmmm, maybe I should be! But how will their novel end?

Let’s hope it ends with the world getting population growth under control, and all the money saved on treatment and management of genetic disease is rerouted toward environmental preservation and restoration. Why not? A girl can dream, right?

 

IVF Murder Mystery!

I just ran across the book, A Perilous Conception, by Pacific Northwest author Larry Karp. This murder mystery set in 1976 about an obstetrician’s quest to be the first to master in vitro fertilization is fiction. But the author’s 25 years of real life experience in perinatal medicine and medical genetics promises to inform this story with the true urgency of the time. Dr. Karp served as Medical Director of the Reproductive Genetics Lab at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center and delivered the first baby in the Pacific Northwest conceived through in vitro fertilization.

The saying is, “write what you know,” and so I’m expecting this book to be full of real nitty-gritty of the fertility field at the time.

Dr. Karp will appear at the wonderful Village Books in Bellingham on January 28.

Film “Starbuck” Earning Raves

A recent French Canadian film, Starbuck, has been garnering awards, including the People’s Choice Award at the Calgary International Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s audience award for the festival’s best narrative feature. Click on the photo below or here for a subtitled trailer.

The comedy begins with 42-year-old David Wosniak, a grossly in-debt man child, as his girlfriend announces that she is unexpectedly pregnant and he is being sued in a class action lawsuit by 142 of the 533 children born from the sperm he donated 20 years earlier. The children in the suit want to know the identity of their biological father, known only by the pseudonym Starbuck.

David decides to find and spy on some of his children, now in their early 20’s, as they stumble through their hilariously odd lives, getting hopelessly sucked in along the way.

The film takes the premise to the extreme for the sake of comedy, but are the film makers also calling for tighter regulation and ethics considerations with their humor? Although there are currently no international regulations on the number of offspring that can be sired by any one donor, many sperm banks follow a self-imposed (and policed) limit on the number of samples sold to the public. To date, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, who gathers and reports U.S. fertility statistics, does not track the number of offspring born from donor sperm. Sperm banks in the U.S. may or may not collect this information, but they are not required to report it to any agency.

The sperm bank we used in California offers a sibling registry to connect families that have used the same donor, but participation in the registry and reporting of offspring produced is voluntary. When we chose our donor from their list, we did not know how many offspring had been produced from that donor, but only whether or not other children had been conceived. At the time, we thought of the existence of half-siblings as a positive because that meant the sperm we were buying was viable and might give us good results, but it never occurred to us to be nervous about exactly how many half-siblings were out there.

I especially enjoyed this article, by Chris Knight of Canada’s The National Post, which compares the film’s main character to his nick-namesake, the famous bull, Starbuck, who sired more than 200,000 female Holsteins in a 19-year period, and was later cloned to continue the legacy.

Only time will tell whether this film will make it to my hometown for viewing, and whether the issue it raises will spur national and/or international regulation, but earning these awards, and thus expanding the film’s distribution and audience, will certainly up the odds. Let’s hope that talks of an English-language version of the film pan out.