Scrambled Eggs

Great! Test tube mothers now, is it? Not enough to eliminate the Fallopian tube, or the on-egg dating site where potential sperm candidates meet, are scrutinized, profiles scanned and competition held for first across the zona (pellucida, that is) … Oh no, now we have to eliminate the entire coffee shop. What is happening out there… or do I mean in there? It’s so confusing.

There was a time when it was simple. Well, maybe it wasn’t, but at least we were used to it. You met somebody and expectations and hormones took over. No need to put in a special request for stem cells, or people in white lab coats and masks. No need to take out a loan –although flowers and dinners aren’t that cheap anymore, either. But it was the excitement of the chase, the hunt –searching for clues about the other person that weren’t all tied to their DNA; picking them because they were funny and considerate, cute and snuggly. They had histories. Stories. Isn’t that why we get together? Wasn’t it?

Okay, I’m leap-frogging here. We’re not there yet –I mean they are not there yet; I suspect that, despite the occasional slip-up, most of us are still going to prefer to stick to the traditional court-and-impregnate model that has served us so far. I mean, fun is fun, eh? And to be fair, there’s a lot to deal with if you want to bypass natural stuff -ingredients, for example. Right now, you need a minimum of two things to make babies: a sperm and a receptive egg (sperm always seem to be in the mood…). Yes, and you need a place for them to meet and grow together, but there are any number of uteri out of work at any given time, so, with the rise of things like Airbnb, I suspect they won’t be a problem.

And everything that is alive has DNA and its instruction manuals closeted away somewhere… Do you see the opportunities I’m suggesting? Trick some skin cell, or whatever, into thinking it’s a sperm or an egg, and poof –reproduction-lite. Better still, why not hoodwink that ordinary cell into thinking it’s pregnant? I mean, it’s got all the necessary assembly instructions squirrelled away, hasn’t it? Your argument just has to be convincing. Persuasive. It doesn’t necessarily need to be, well, necessary. You could just be doing it for fun. A prank. Or to prove that you can, I guess. Isn’t that why a lot of stuff gets done? When you tire of trying to justify something that would fly in the face of current needs and desires, you simply create a niche product. Create a want. Wants usually evolve into needs –mutate into needs, at any rate. Look at Selfies and their requirement for sticks. Or bell-bottomed trousers –no, wait, that was a while ago…

My point, I think, is that gender may be rendered redundant not by increasing social awareness of its variations, but rather because of its dispensability. Why keep something you don’t really need? History will decide, of course, but hindsight tends to come down hard on things that outlive their time. Consider phlogiston. It was the postulated fire element that was contained by combustible things and was released when they caught fire. Of course! But who, apart from old people, have even heard of it? Or want to?

And then, in keeping with the air theme, there is the Miasma Theory which just assumed that disease was caused by ‘bad air’. Simple. Elegant. No need to bring in a lot of accessory stuff like animalcules and other things you couldn’t see anyway. Germs, let alone viruses prions and the like, were simply unnecessary and unduly complicated. Why dump many unknowns into an equation that could be solved by one charming known? Why mess with E = mc 2 when it isn’t a theory of everything, especially if it needs Quantum? Explanation isn’t everything, either…

Okay, so I’ve non sequitured again, but hopefully you see my concern. Obsolescence is one thing –we often persist past our best-before dates- but unplanned obsolescence is another creature entirely. It smacks of blundering about in dark corners hoping there are no unpleasant surprises -nothing that will sting in retrospect.

I am as excited as the next person about the prospects for the future, but experience teaches caution. The principle of unintended consequences is a favourite historical topic –almost as seductive as the ‘what if’s’ so popularized in historical fiction nowadays. Maybe there is nothing enchanted about that first introduction between egg and sperm. Nothing magical. Nothing necessary. Maybe life will carry on much as before and procreation will still scratch out a living between the sheets. And maybe it’s always good to have options -choices freely made and understood. Even needed, occasionally. We have always been condemned to live in interesting times –the Past was never an Eden.

And yet…


A Canadian stem cell bank account?

There is method in the madness, the desperate rush for ontogeny. Cells huff and puff, some listening for instructions, others heading off in all directions like missionaries to new and just-discovered worlds. It is a busy place, the initial blastocyst turning into a multicelled embryo, as ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, organs materialize out of apparent chaos, and form supersedes scaffold. Supervising all this, becoming all this, the Stem Cell quietly goes about its business of transformation: idea to blueprint to structure. Each starts off undifferentiated -uncommitted yet full of potential, a virtual library of plans; it then turns itself into whatever specialized cells the developing organism requires. It’s more complicated than that, of course, but a building usually is: walls hide a plethora of complexity, not to mention mystery.

And that these pluripotential cells, these nascent republics, hide in open view in the umbilical blood of every newborn baby -probably every newborn organism- should be grist for the just-so tales told to those same children years hence. It is truly a once-upon-a-time event that should thrill not only the wide-eyed child in the bed, but even the more sceptical adult storyteller. The Stem Cell is not just a progenitor, it is a gift almost too good to be true -an Aladdin’s lamp not to be ignored, nor, for that matter, to be trifled with. More -much more- needs to be learned before we rub it the wrong way, rub it roughly and are disappointed. Expectations too often outstrip reality. Much is promised, and no doubt much will be forthcoming. Currently, stem cells offer ‘promising treatments for leukemia, lymphoma, sickle cell disease and other blood, bone, immune and metabolic disorders’. But the path is unpredictable, tortuous, and meanders into the labyrinthine forest…

Stem cells were first discovered in the mid 1960ies in a type of cancer -a teratocarcinoma- that arose, not surprisingly, from cells that would ordinarily have formed gametes (germ cells). And the concept, the dream of pluripotentiality took off from there -more helpfully when a rich source of stem cells was found in umbilical cord blood. This eventually led to cord banks that would contract with parents to store the umbilical cord blood from their babies for their own future use -a relatively costly arrangement that charged more for potential than actual use. And anyway, not everybody could afford to store their baby’s blood.  In other words, in Canada at least, a parent may pay as much as $1000.00 to start the process and then a premium each year to keep it stored in case it might be needed. And how often might it be needed? Well, apparently not very often at all. A 2007 American Academy of Pediatric policy statement on cord blood banking estimated that the use frequency was only one in a thousand to one in two hundred thousand! Other estimates have suggested higher usage rates since that statement was issued, but the point is that for an individual child, it is a substantial investment with a minimal yield.

So it has always seemed more appropriate to me that there be a national cord blood bank -one from which all in Canada could draw as the need arose. Other countries have done this… But until this year, only for-profit private banks were available in Canada. Now, at last, there is a national cord blood bank opening -albeit with limited branches at first:

Like adult blood donations in this country, cord blood should be donated free of charge. I don’t think profit should have any role in humanitarian projects. Health should not be something you have to purchase. Of course there is nothing stopping a parent from paying to store their infant’s cord blood for its own exclusive -or the family’s- use, although the above-linked 2012 article from the Toronto Globe and Mail, suggests that it is sometimes difficult to ensure a match for a family member even with that genetic kinship.

A national cord blood bank also offers a ready source of material for ongoing research. The ethics of using privately banked -reserved- blood for research is at the very least questionable, and unless agreed upon at the start, probably a breach of contract. And since the yield from any one umbilical cord is variable, but not excessive, if the parent is paying to store that limited quantity, it is cheeky to suggest they should not get all they’re paying for…

No, I applaud the new and national resource and wish them a speedy growth. And like the cells they guard, may the centers offering banks bloom like violets in the sun.