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Feature Reproductive medicine

Fear and infertility research

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: (Published 01 February 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k434
  1. Sally Howard, freelance journalist
  1. London, UK
  1. sal{at}

As innovations in potential treatments for infertility and heritable disease come thick and fast, researchers say that better public understanding of what is possible—and desirable—is crucial, reports Sally Howard

From human-animal hybrid “chimeras” to mitochondria donor “three parent babies” and gene edited “Frankentinie” embryos,1 the media often contributes to public fears about developments in assisted conception and medical genetics. Perhaps some bombast is understandable: after all, some of these innovations relate to the very nature of what constitutes a sperm, egg, or embryo.

But research in these areas could lead to new treatments for infertility and reproductive failure. Better understanding of how germ cells develop, for example, could improve understanding of reproduction and help prevent genetic diseases such as sickle cell and cystic fibrosis. But some researchers say overly conservative regulation is inhibiting this work.

Fifty years since in vitro fertilisation was first shown to be possible in humans, and 40 years since the birth of the world’s first IVF baby, breakthroughs are coming thick and fast but regulation and public debate are struggling to keep pace. Where is the line between “a noble endeavour and an untrustworthy one,” asked Sarah Norcross, director of Progress Educational Trust (PET), a UK charity that seeks debate on assisted conception, as she opened a conference organised by the charity in London in December.

Restrictive US rules

In the US the rules are pretty restrictive. A 1979 decree and 1995 bill amendment block public funding of research on embryos. From 2001, researchers have had to have a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permit for privately funded in vitro fertilisation procedures that include the transfer of genetic material. From 2015, a budget bill has prohibited the …

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