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What to (maybe) expect when you’re expecting fertility biotech

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A screen shows a lab tech fertilizing an egg via in vitro fertilization.

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Authors amy Webb and Andrew Hessel smile for a photo together.
Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel (Courtesy Webb and Hessel)

Futurist Amy Webb keeps a close eye on the next big trends to come from the technology sector. She’s also known for asking early questions about the economic and ethical issues related to those advancements.

Webb — along with her co-author, geneticist Andrew Hessel — explores some of those big issues related to biotech in their new book, “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology.” Those include how new technology could change what we eat and how we have children.

“There’s an emerging technology that’s going to soon allow people to create a baby using their own genetic material without necessarily requiring donor eggs or sperm,” Webb said in an interview with “Marketplace Tech’s” Kimberly Adams. “And even further down the road, we’re going to be in a position where we can both create and screen more embryos.”

Webb wants you to know that fertility-related biotech shouldn’t be about having a “designer child” but should provide better options to help adults who are struggling to have children naturally.

Click HERE to listen to the interview. The following is an excerpt from “The Genesis Machine” about a possible future in which synthetic biology plays a role.

Scenario One

CREATING YOUR CHILD WITH WELLSPRING

Welcome to Wellspring. Our world-renowned fertility experts and state-of-the-art assistive reproduction technologies are ready to help you create a new life. Wellspring has completed more than 3 million procedures, and our success rates rank among the highest in the nation. Every ten seconds, a Wellspring baby is born.

“The genetic architects at Wellspring care deeply about their patients. They didn’t overwhelm us with choices. We are confident in the upgrades we selected, and we will be forever grateful to Wellspring for helping us start our family.”
— Sawyer and Kai M.

WHAT TO EXPECT

Every parent(s) is assigned a personal Wellspring team who will assist you throughout your reproductive journey. Your team includes a genetic architect, a digital fertility assistant, a genetic encryption specialist, a carrier liaison, a technician, and a Wellspring concierge. For those who desire upgrades, cold storage for your embryos, or artificial incubation, your extended Wellspring team will include additional specialists.

Once your embryos have been created, your technician will conduct preimplantation screenings to ensure that your specifications have been achieved. However, sometimes changes occur.

During screening, we will identify single gene defects, monogenic abnormalities, and structural rearrangements and remove those embryos as candidates. Your digital fertility assistant and Wellspring concierge will meet with you to discuss risk factors for your strongest embryo candidates. You will select one (recommended) or two (if you are able to support twins) embryos for implantation in a carrier of your choice: you, your partner, a surrogate, or an artificial womb housed in our high-security incubation facility. If necessary or desired, your remaining embryos will be encrypted, frozen, and stored for use in future procedures.

FAQ

As you begin your journey to becoming a parent, you will undoubtedly have many questions about what traits and characteristics to select during the genetic reprogramming process. Below are answers to our clients’ most frequently asked questions.

Is the procedure to retrieve my skin cells painful?

At worst, most patients feel a minor burning sensation. After sterilizing a small patch of skin on your forearm, a technician will inject a mild local anesthetic. Once it takes effect, the technician will gently remove a bit of your skin with a precision-tooled scalpel. Stitches usually aren’t necessary, and the site typically heals within a week, without any scarring.

Is there a limit to how many embryos I can order?

While our artificial intelligence systems run millions of simulations to generate the best possible genetic constructs to meet your specifications, we limit the number of embryo candidates to six. Your small but mighty group of embryos will offer variations of the traits you have selected. In our many years of research, we have found that the more options parents are given, the less satisfied they are with the outcomes. Too many choices during the genetic architecture phase can be confusing and even traumatic. This phenomenon is called the “tyranny of choice.” Rest assured that our proprietary algorithms will select your desired attributes in combinations optimized for your unique circumstances.

What traits can I select for?

During the genetic architecture phase, your digital fertility assistant will get to know you, or you and your partner(s), individually. The digital assistant will conduct interviews to learn about your worldviews, experiences, and expectations. You will also undergo a series of genetic tests to determine heritable traits and predispositions. Once this process has been completed, we will develop a custom list of traits, and you will be invited to select from among these potentialities. They will include gender, physical attributes, cognitive dimensions, and other features.

Can I select from all possible traits, rather than the group I’m assigned?

Unfortunately, no. There are two reasons we limit trait selection. First, your child will carry your DNA and will therefore match some of your genetic predispositions. Second, certain genetic traits cannot be combined. For example, shoe size is proportional to height; if you select a height of between 6 and 6.5 feet, a shoe size between 14 and 20 will optimize your child’s gait, balance, and posture. A tall child with tiny feet would face significant mobility challenges. Likewise, if you select cognitive traits such as superior analytical skill and a strong ability to memorize information, your child cannot also have superior intuition and the ability to think abstractly. At Wellspring, we strive to harmonize and balance each new life we create.

Can I upgrade my baseline embryos?

Certain upgrades are offered to parents who meet financial qualifications. At this time, Wellspring is pleased to offer approved upgrades for memory, body mass index, bone density, lung capacity, extended pharyngeal cavity (for improved vocal resonance), mild webbing between toes (for improved performance in water sports), and engineered hyperosmia (an ultra-enhanced sense of scent).

Is there financial assistance available to help offset the costs of upgrades?

Patients covered under the national healthcare program are eligible for up to three IVG cycles and up to one new life creation. Wellspring’s world-class assistive technology will be used to create a new life within the standard genetic norms as determined by your own, or your partner(s), screenings. For example, if your cognitive norm falls within 90 to 110 intelligence quotient points, your embryos will match your score range. Upgrades that are not covered under the national healthcare program must be paid for by parent(s). Unfortunately, we do not offer financial assistance to offset the costs of upgrades.

Do military veterans automatically qualify for upgrades?

According to the current national government’s five-year schema, all military veterans are eligible for upgrades at no out-of-pocket cost. Veterans interested in upgrades must first enroll in the Mil-Gen program. Mil-Gen program participants will be assigned an additional Wellspring liaison who will monitor the genetic architecture and screening process and select exclusive Mil-Gen upgrades for each new life. New lives created under the Mil-Gen program will be monitored until children turn eighteen, at which point they will serve their required four years in the military. After their service, they can choose a military career or transfer to an appropriate post in the government. And remember that new lives created in the Mil-Gen program are guaranteed lifetime employment and full benefits.

How can I opt in to Wellspring’s private beta upgrade programs?

Wellspring is committed to excellence. We continually scrutinize our own protocols and methodologies to exceed the exacting standards set by the national government. As assistive reproductive technology innovators, Wellspring scientists are always hard at work developing new features and upgrades. Our beta upgrade program participants meet with a specialized team that will determine, on a case-by-case basis, whether these new features and upgrades will harmonize with the desired genetic architecture of completed embryos. Beta upgrade programs are private, opt-in opportunities between individuals and program managers. There is no charge to parents accepted into a beta upgrade program; however, the beta upgrade program should not be viewed as a workaround for parents who do not qualify for standard upgrades. Note: Mil-Gen patients are automatically entered into exclusive Mil-Gen beta upgrade programs, and such cases do not require an application.

Which beta upgrade programs are available during my IVG cycle?

It’s always best to check with your genetic architect to learn which beta upgrade programs are compatible with your baseline genetic construct. Our current beta upgrade programs include:

Respiratory Upgrade: Each lung is made up of smaller lobes, three on the right side (superior, middle, inferior) and two on the left side (superior and inferior). Fissures separate the lobes from each other, with bronchial tubes extending throughout. In this upgrade program, we include an additional lobe on each side as well as wider bronchial tubes and increase the capacity of the heart. For the athletic-minded parent(s), this upgrade is highly likely to result in improved cardio-respiratory function.

Improved Night Vision: Normal eyes are capable of seeing in low light (such as moonlight or candlelight). However, we can reprogram the retina’s directional neurons to send additional information to the brain. This will result in extra-perception in low-light settings, such as dark rooms and closets. In areas where there is little natural light—such as a forest or country road at nighttime—upgraded retinas will allow those treated to see most details clearly. Important Note: This beta upgrade is incompatible with a selection for blue, lavender, turquoise, green, peach, or pink iris colors, as genetic instructions to produce extra brown pigments are included to protect the retina against light exposure.

• Thicker Skin: Homo neanderthalensis—Neanderthals—produced far more keratin (a fibrous protein) than Homo sapiens. Compared to us, they had tougher skin, hair, and nails and were better suited for colder climates. In this pilot program, we introduce certain Neanderthal genes to generate increased keratin production. Primarily an aesthetic upgrade, it will result in smoother, fuller skin and fewer wrinkles over time, as well as generally thicker hair and stronger and longer (if desired) fingernails.

What if I cannot find a carrier for my embryo(s)?

Wellspring’s high-security, encrypted incubation facility provides a safe alternative to in vivo pregnancy. Your artificial womb compartment is customized for your genetic profile, and compartments are monitored continuously by two digital assistants and a Wellspring Incubation Specialist. Accessing your private dashboard, you can generate an unlimited number of sonograms and ultrasounds at any time. We offer a selection of sounds—including your voice(s); white, pink, blue, or brownian noise; and music—to play at optimal periods of developmental growth. On birth day, you and up to three family members enter the Opening Room to witness the opening of your compartment and removal of your baby by a team of automated delivery specialists. Your Wellspring concierge will then assist you with all of your new parent needs as you transition your new life into your home.

Excerpted from “The Genesis Machine: Our Quest to Rewrite Life in the Age of Synthetic Biology” by Amy Webb and Andrew Hessel. Copyright © 2022. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.

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