Alan Trounson's Frozen Embryos Stir a New Test-Tube Baby Controversy

updated 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/22/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Louise Brown, the world's first test-tube baby, is only 3½ years old, but already she has at least 30 "siblings"—related not by blood but by method of conception. That many babies have been born in the U.S., Britain, Australia and elsewhere thanks to the in vitro ("in glass") fertilization technique that brought Louise into the world. There are more than 100 additional test-tube pregnancies under way-including another for Louise's mom, Lesley. The baby is due in July.

All this would seem to be enough progress to occupy in vitro's medical researchers—not to mention those who have been hotly debating the morality of such births. Now Dr. Alan Trounson, 36, of Melbourne, Australia, has gone one step further: He has set up an "embryo bank" for keeping a supply of frozen, fertilized eggs on hand indefinitely. A woman seeking to conceive, for instance, could theoretically have a number of eggs taken from her ovaries at one time, which would then be fertilized by her husband's sperm and frozen. If the first transplanted embryo should fail to lead to pregnancy, doctors would have others available. Trounson hopes a woman might someday be able to donate eggs to another woman who is incapable of producing her own.

In England, meanwhile, the doctors who ushered Louise into the world—Patrick Steptoe and Robert Edwards—announced plans to set up a similar bank. Edwards even predicted that one of the benefits of freezing embryos might be to allow doctors to screen for some hereditary diseases. But a controversy erupted over their new project, and the two doctors abruptly canceled it.

In Australia, Trounson, who has a Ph.D. in reproductive biology from the University of Sydney and postgraduate training at Britain's Cambridge University, has already frozen the embryos of cattle, sheep, horses, pigs and rabbits. He has then thawed and inserted them both into the original donors and into other females of the same species. The result was uniformly healthy offspring. Yet after 18 months of effort, Trounson has been unable to repeat his success with humans. He now has 27 human embryos frozen in liquid nitrogen in a tank in his laboratory in Melbourne's Queen Victoria Hospital. Each embryo began as an egg taken from a prospective mother. It was fertilized in a specially treated plastic container (the process that begat Louise). Just as the coupled egg and sperm, called a zygote, began dividing into two cells, then four, then eight, it was frozen.

Trounson has thawed and transferred nine embryos so far to their natural mothers' wombs. Why no pregnancies? "Some of the embryos were damaged by ice or chemicals," the doctor says. "With unfrozen embryos we're looking at a success rate of one in five or six, so with frozen embryos the rate may be one in 10 or 12." He adds: "The final criterion of success is to have patients pregnant and then to have normal babies. We have not succeeded in that, but what we have achieved is the survival of embryos after freezing and thawing. We are confident our research is progressing."

Where Trounson and his British colleagues see great benefits, though, others see grave dangers. Opponents have raised the specter of possible abuses by genetic Dr. Strangeloves. Theoretically, for example, conception could precede birth not by nine months but by 90 years. Some critics object to the fact that women could bear babies genetically conceived by an unknown couple—that is, give birth to embryos "adopted" from other biological parents. Leo Abse, a member of the British Parliament, carried that fear to its extreme. "The tragedy of Oedipus—of a man marrying his mother—looms." (A similar potential problem, though, exists today with artificial insemination of sperm from anonymous male donors.)

Dr. Michael Thomas, chairman of the Central Ethical Committee of the British Medical Association, has personally called for a moratorium on in vitro fertilization until guidelines can be written to deal with such ethical and legal questions as: Is the death of an embryo an abortion? And what are the chances that babies conceived this way could be deformed? "Medical technology is running ahead of morality," Thomas says. In Australia, both the Anglican and Catholic churches have also urged caution. "At this stage the moral weight of the teaching of the church suggests that in vitro fertilization is not ethical," said Thomas Francis Little, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Melbourne.

Trounson, himself the father of two, insists he is using science to help the estimated 10 to 15 percent of the world's population who have fertility problems. "I consider the donation of eggs similar to artificial insemination," he says, "and therefore I believe that it is a reasonable and ethical stance to take.... It is unethical to use human embryos just for academic interest, but ethical to try and preserve the potential for life."

JOHN DUNN (MELBOURNE) and JERENE JONES (LONDON)

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