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Biomedical startups are racing to revolutionize the way humans reproduce

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

One of the most cutting-edge and controversial fields of biomedical research right now is the quest to create eggs and sperm in the lab for anyone with their own DNA. And now, private companies have jumped into the race to revolutionize the way humans reproduce. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein reports on what these startups are up to.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It's a cloudy day in Berkeley, Calif. I turn onto a gritty side street near the San Francisco Bay and ring the bell on a low concrete building with big frosted glass doors.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOORBELL RINGING)

STEIN: I'm Rob Stein from NPR.

MATT KRISILOFF: Hey, I'm Matt Krisiloff. Nice to meet you.

STEIN: Nice to meet you, too.

Matt Krisiloff is one of the founders of a company called Conception.

KRISILOFF: So let me find them real quick and then...

STEIN: We walk through a big, open space filled with computer stations to find a quiet room.

What are you guys trying to do? What's Conception all about?

KRISILOFF: Yeah, so basically, we're trying to turn a type of stem cell called an induced pluripotent stem cell into a human egg, ultimately with the goal - if it's safe - to do it for fertility purposes.

STEIN: And why?

KRISILOFF: Really opens the door, if you can create eggs, to be able to help people have children that otherwise don't have options right now.

STEIN: Like women whose eggs are too old, enabling them to have their own genetically-related kids at any age because induced pluripotent stem cells can be made from just a single cell from anyone's skin or blood. So these lab-grown eggs would have all of their DNA. It's called in vitro gametogenesis, or IVG.

KRISILOFF: My personal biggest interest in it is that it could allow same-sex couples to be able to have biological children together as well. Yeah, I'm gay, and it's something that got me so personally interested in this in the first place.

STEIN: Same goes for one of Krisiloff's co-founders, Pablo Hurtado.

PABLO HURTADO: There is something intrinsic, sharing a life that is half me and half my husband. I don't have the capacity right now, and I am devoting my life to try to change that.

STEIN: Because IVG could create eggs from one of his cells that could make a baby with sperm from his partner - vice versa for lesbian couples. Same goes for trans couples. And they say the company's gotten closer to making IVG a reality than anyone else.

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STEIN: To show me what they've done and how, Bianka Seres, their third co-founder, takes me into their lab.

BIANKA SERES: It's quite loud in here with all the machines running.

STEIN: The big lab's packed with specialized equipment. Dozens of scientists wearing white lab coats are busy conducting experiments. Hurtado opens an incubator and pulls out a clear, round lab dish.

HURTADO: These are primordial germ cell-like cells.

STEIN: Stem cells that the company made from human blood cells and then coaxed into developing into cells that could become either sperm or eggs.

HURTADO: They already decided that they are going to become an egg or a sperm, but they haven't decided yet that they are going to become an egg. And that's something that we do later on.

STEIN: Instead of clumping together in colonies like stem cells, each primordial germ cell-like cell is visibly much more distinct.

HURTADO: So in this case, you can see each individual cell as a circle.

STEIN: Can I look through the microscope to see what they look like?

HURTADO: Yeah, please. Look through the microscope.

STEIN: Oh, wow. Yeah, I see them. Once they start to become something else - start to become a little bit more independent or something.

SERES: Yeah, they are maturing into becoming more independent. And in fact, fun fact is X cells are truly independent, and they actually will need to become one cell within that follicle.

STEIN: A follicle - the part of a woman's ovaries that cradles each egg into maturity.

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STEIN: Hurtado quickly returns the cells to the incubator and pulls out a rectangular dish.

HURTADO: These are some of our mini ovaries. These are a few weeks old now.

STEIN: The mini ovaries are combinations of cells the company made to nurture the primordial germ cell-like cells into their next step of development. Another microscope projects what's in that dish onto a screen.

HURTADO: Hopefully what you can appreciate here is you can see our mini ovary, and then you can see a lot of dots that are really red, fluorescent. Each of those cells is a germ cell.

STEIN: A germ cell - a very immature human egg cell.

HURTADO: I like to call it a Christmas tree because it's like all the lights - make people happy when they see something like this.

STEIN: But this is sort of like a little factory to make human eggs for women who are infertile or gay men who want to have babies.

HURTADO: Yeah, yeah. It's really exciting to be working on a technology that can change the life of millions of humans.

STEIN: Wow. That's amazing.

HURTADO: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINE WHIRRING)

STEIN: Within a year, Krisiloff hopes they'll prove the follicles in those mini ovaries can mature the immature eggs into fully developed eggs.

KRISILOFF: And so, as far as we know, we're the first in the world that have been able to do this. So it's really exciting 'cause we think it means we're quite close to being able to have proof-of-concept human eggs instead of this abstract idea that's really just an imaginative science-fiction idea - that really indicates that, hey, this technology is actually closer than people think.

STEIN: Now, the company's only released a few details about their experiments, so independent scientists can't validate their claims, and some are skeptical. Krisiloff acknowledges that a lot more research is needed to prove the company could produce viable eggs that would be safe to use, but he's confident they're on the cusp of success. Already, the work is creating a lot of excitement, but also a lot of concerns.

MARCY DARNOVSKY: This could take us into kind of a "Gattaca" world.

STEIN: Marcy Darnovsky runs the Center for Genetics and Society at Berkeley. She says, combined with new gene-editing techniques, IVG could fuel all kinds of dystopian scenarios, including designer babies.

DARNOVSKY: Combining IVG and genome editing and commercialization, you've really got kind of a toxic stew to create people who are supposedly biologically superior to others. We don't want to pave the road toward any kind of future that looks anything like that.

STEIN: But for another perspective, I travel about an hour south to talk with Stanford University bioethicist Hank Greely.

HANK GREELY: Have a seat.

STEIN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)

GREELY: I'm a fan of the IVG idea. I think it offers the possibility for millions of couples who desperately want to have kids that are genetically half one, half the other, who can't do that now, to have those children.

STEIN: That said, Greely also worries about commercial pressures pushing IVG too fast.

GREELY: Rob, I live in Silicon Valley, where the motto is move fast and break things. Of course it worries me. Happily, the FDA does not want you to move fast and break things, and the FDA has a lot of power. I'm confident the FDA will use that power because we don't think babies are like iPhones.

STEIN: Greely acknowledges that there are lots of possibilities that raise thorny questions, like using cells from children, the elderly, even dead people to make babies, or cells stolen from celebrities to make babies without their consent. A person could even make babies with nothing but their own DNA.

GREELY: Part of me says, you know, why worry about these wild scenarios? Who in the world would do that? And then I think there are 8 billion people in the world. And, you know, there are some rich megalomaniacs out there - we won't name names - who I can imagine might think that was cool.

STEIN: Back at Conception, Matt Krisiloff and his colleagues acknowledge the concerns, but they told me they would welcome government regulation.

KRISILOFF: Can it go down pathways where, you know, people try and do weird, like, designer aspects or much more out-there things? Yeah. I mean, I think that's a fair thing to worry about, and there's all sorts of gray areas that society really needs to figure out. But, yeah, opening this door for so many more people is - including, you know, me and Pablo - a really cool thing. If it could lead to so many people being able to have families and children being able to have lives, I just think that's a really beautiful thing.

STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News, Berkeley, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.