Building babies: The new science of reproduction for military couples, cancer patients, and more

WILMINGTON, NC (FOX WILMINGTON) - The liquid nitrogen tank is unsealed, and Dr. Chad Johnson removes the plug. A wispy cloud of white gas seeps from the opening, seemingly in slow-motion.

Johnson pulls out a metal stick lined with tiny tubes containing frozen sperm, eggs, and embryos.

"These are potential future humans," said Johnson.

This might sound like Chapter 1 of a science fiction novel, but actually it's a daily reality inside a lab on Shipyard Boulevard in Wilmington.

"We've helped many, many people become fathers and mothers who, 20 or 30 years ago, had no chance of becoming pregnant," said Johnson, who oversees the scientific operation of Wilmington Reproductive Laboratories.

Freezing sperm, eggs, and embryos

Cryopreservation, a special freezing process that preserves sperm, eggs, or embryos, is just one of the services offered at the Wilmington-based lab, which works in concert with local doctors to help people with fertility challenges.

These building blocks of life are frozen at 400 degrees below zero, a temperature so cold that no biological activity occurs. Sperm, eggs, and embryos could theoretically be stored forever in liquid nitrogen, Johnson said.

"I call it the grandparent option," said Dr. Karenne Fru, a specialized fertility doctor with Coastal Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility in Wilmington.

Some parents are now paying for their young daughters to freeze their eggs because they are just starting their professional lives and are likely going to defer childbirth until later.

"The average age of women has only migrated north," said Fru. "Twenty-plus percent of women are having their first child after age 35, and the infertility challenges they have to overcome are only increasing with increasing age."

Military couples are also using cryopreservation as a family insurance policy of sorts.

"We definitely see military fellows who come in. They may be deploying overseas for six months or a year or two and their wife might still want to try to get pregnant while they are gone," said Johnson. "So they may freeze enough sperm samples to try inseminations on the wife to let her attempt to get pregnant while he's overseas."

Young cancer patients are also turning to cryopreservation in case the chemotherapy and radiation meant to wipe out the cancer accidentally hurts their reproductive system.

"Freezing sperm is particularly important in patients who have a diagnosis of cancer, and may be going undergoing chemotherapy or radiation," said Dr. Will Kirby, a male reproductive specialist with Urology Associates of Southeastern NC in Wilmington. "Freezing sperm is a great method to preserve fertility and then that sperm can be used in the future to have children."

The future of fertility

It's a source of controversy and ethical debate, but researchers around the world are working to insert modern science into the baby-making process.

So-called three-parent babies have already been born using the DNA from mom, dad, and a donor.

This method has been used to help women struggling with mitochondrial diseases, a group of disorders that impacts the cell's ability to create energy causing organs to not function properly.

"Now you are making individuals that have genetic material from three different people," said Fru.

Three-parent babies are created by using a donated egg from a healthy woman and insert the mom's DNA. Then, that egg is combined with the dad's sperm to create the baby without the mitochondrial disease.

Another fertility technique on the horizon is a uterus transplant.

The uterus, also called the womb, is where the baby develops inside a pregnant woman. For a woman with healthy eggs, but problems with the uterus, a transplant could help her have kids.

"At least two have been done. There has been a delivery that has occurred as a result of a uterine transplant," said Fru.

Researchers are also experimenting with targeted DNA editing using a technology called CRISPR/Cas9.

It's controversial and still in the research phase, but scientists hope to correct inherited diseases in embryos before the baby is even born.

"I hesitate to say genetically modified individuals, but there is some discussion of targeting genetic mutations in the embryo so that it is fixed and can be transplanted back," Fru said.

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