In October 2021, a woman from Gujarat, India, stunned the world when it was revealed she had her first child through in vitro fertilization (IVF) at age 70. She had actually been preceded by a compatriot of hers who, two years before, gave birth to twins at the age of 73, again with the help of IVF treatment. The oldest known mother to conceive naturally lived in the UK; in 1997, Dawn Brooke conceived a son at age 59.
These women may seem extreme outliers, almost freaks of nature; in the US, for example, the average age of first-time mothers is 26. A few decades from now, though, the sight of 70-year-old first-time mothers may not even raise eyebrows, say futurists.
“We could absolutely have more 70-year-old mothers because we are learning how to regulate the aging process better,” says Andrew Hessel, a microbiologist and geneticist, who cowrote "The Genesis Machine," a book about “rewriting life in the age of synthetic biology,” with Amy Webb, the futurist who recently wondered why 70-year-old women shouldn’t give birth.
Technically, we're already doing this, says Hessel, pointing to a technique known as in vitro gametogenesis (IVG). IVG refers to turning adult cells into sperm or egg cells. “You can think of it as the upgrade to IVF,” Hessel says. These vanguard stem cell research technologies can take even skin cells and turn them into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), which are basically master cells capable of maturing into any human cell, be it kidney cells, liver cells, brain cells or gametes, aka eggs and sperm, says Henry T. “Hank” Greely, a Stanford law professor who specializes in ethical, legal, and social issues in biosciences.
Mothers over 70 will be a minor blip, statistically speaking, Greely predicts.
In 2016, Greely wrote "The End of Sex," a book in which he described the science of making gametes out of iPSCs in detail. Greely says science will indeed enable us to see 70-year-old new mums fraternize with mothers several decades younger at kindergartens in the (not far) future. And it won’t be that big of a deal.
“An awful lot of children all around the world have been raised by grandmothers for millennia. To have 70-year-olds and 30-year-olds mingling in maternal roles is not new,” he says. That said, he doubts that many women will want to have a baby in the eighth decade of their life, even if science allows it. “Having a baby and raising a child is hard work. Even if 1% of all mothers are over 65, they aren’t going to change the world,” Greely says. Mothers over 70 will be a minor blip, statistically speaking, he predicts. But one thing is certain: the technology is here.
And more technologies for the same purpose could be on the way. In March 2021, researchers from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, published research in Nature, where they successfully reprogrammed skin cells into a three-dimensional cellular structure that was morphologically and molecularly similar to a human embryo–the iBlastoid. In compliance with Australian law and international guidelines referencing the “primitive streak rule," which bans the use of embryos older than 14 days in scientific research, Monash scientists stopped growing their iBlastoids in vitro on day 11.
“The research was both cutting-edge and controversial, because it essentially created a new human life, not for the purpose of a patient who's wanting to conceive, but for basic research,” says Lindsay Wu, a senior lecturer in the School of Medical Sciences at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), in Kensington, Australia. If you really want to make sure what you are breeding is an embryo, you need to let it develop into a viable baby. “This is the real proof in the pudding,'' says Wu, who runs UNSW’s Laboratory for Ageing Research. Then you get to a stage where you decide for ethical purposes you have to abort it. “Fiddling here a bit too much?” he asks. Wu believes there are other approaches to tackling declining fertility due to older age that are less morally troubling.
He is actually working on them. Why would it be that women, who are at peak physical health in almost every other regard, in their mid- to late- thirties, have problems conceiving, asked Wu and his team in a research paper published in 2020 in Cell Reports. The simple answer is the egg cell. An average girl in puberty has between 300,000 and 400,000 eggs, while at around age 37, the same woman has only 25,000 eggs left. Things only go downhill from there. So, what torments the egg cells?
The UNSW team found that the levels of key molecules called NAD+ precursors, which are essential to the metabolism and genome stability of egg cells, decline with age. The team proceeded to add these vitamin-like substances back into the drinking water of reproductively aged, infertile lab mice, which then had babies.
“It's an important proof of concept,” says Wu. He is investigating how safe it is to replicate the experiment with humans in two ongoing studies. The ultimate goal is to restore the quality of egg cells that are left in patients in their late 30s and early- to mid-40s, says Wu. He sees the goal of getting pregnant for this age group as less ethically troubling, compared to 70-year-olds.
But what is ethical, anyway? “It is a tricky word,” says Hessel. He differentiates between ethics, which represent a personal position and may, thus, be more transient, and morality, longer lasting principles embraced across society such as, “Thou shalt not kill.” Unprecedented advances often bring out fear and antagonism until time passes and they just become…ordinary. When IVF pioneer Landrum Shettles tried to perform IVF in 1973, the chairman of Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons interdicted the procedure at the last moment. Almost all countries in the world have IVF clinics today, and the global IVF services market is clearly a growth industry.
Besides, you don’t have a baby at 70 by accident: you really want it, Greely and Hessel agree. And by that age, mothers may be wiser and more financially secure, Hessel says (though he is quick to add that even the pregnancy of his own wife, who had her child at 40, was a high-risk one).
As a research question, figuring out whether older mothers are better than younger ones and vice-versa entails too many confounding variables, says Greely. And why should we focus on who’s the better mother anyway? “We've had 70-year-old and 80-year-old fathers forever–why should people have that much trouble getting used to mothers doing the same?” Greely wonders. For some women having a child at an old(er) age would be comforting; maybe that’s what matters.
And the technology to enable older women to have children is already here or coming very soon. That, perhaps, matters even more. Researchers have already created mice–and their offspring–entirely from scratch in the lab. “Doing this to produce human eggs is similar," says Hessel. "It is harder to collect tissues, and the inducing cocktails are different, but steady advances are being made." He predicts that the demand for fertility treatments will keep financing research and development in the area. He says that big leaps will be made if ethical concerns don’t block them: it is not far-fetched to believe that the first baby produced from lab-grown eggs will be born within the next decade.
In an op-ed in 2020 with Stat, Greely argued that we’ve already overcome the technical barrier for human cloning, but no one's really talking about it. Likewise, scientists are also working on enabling 70-year-old women to have babies, says Hessel, but most commentators are keeping really quiet about it. At least so far.
At age 52, Glen Rouse suffered from arm weakness and a lot of muscle twitches. “I first thought something was wrong when I could not throw a 50-pound bag of dog food over the tailgate of my truck—something I use to do effortlessly,” said the 54-year-old resident of Anderson, California, about three hours north of San Francisco.
In August, Rouse retired as a forester for a private timber company, a job he had held for 31 years. The impetus: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a progressive neuromuscular disease that is commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, named after the New York Yankees’ first baseman who succumbed to it less than a month shy of his 40th birthday in 1941. ALS eventually robs an individual of the ability to talk, walk, chew, swallow and breathe.
Rouse is now dependent on ventilation through a nasal mask and uses a powerchair to get around. “I can no longer walk or use my arms very well,” he said. “I can still move my wrists and fingers. I can also transfer from my chair to the toilet if I have two of my friends help me.”
It’s “shocking” that modern medicine has very little to offer to people with this devastating condition, Rouse said. But there is hope on the horizon. Yesterday, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved Relyvrio, a drug made up of two parts, sodium phenylbutyrate and taurursodiol, to treat patients with ALS.
“This approval provides another important treatment option for ALS, a life-threatening disease that currently has no cure,” said Billy Dunn, director of the Office of Neuroscience in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, in a statement. “The FDA remains committed to facilitating the development of additional ALS treatments.”
Until this point, the FDA had approved only two other medications—Riluzole (rilutek) in 1995 and Radicava (edaravone) in 2017—to extend life in patients with ALS, which typically kills within two to five years after diagnosis. That’s why earlier this week, Rouse was optimistic about the FDA’s likely approval of a controversial new drug for ALS.
When Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months, said Richard Bedlak, director of the Duke ALS Clinic. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
“The whole ALS community is extremely excited about it,” he said the day before Relyvrio’s expected approval. “We are very hopeful. We’re on pins and needles.”
A study of 137 ALS patients did not result in “substantial evidence” that Relyvrio was effective, the agency’s Peripheral and Central Nervous System Drugs Advisory Committee concluded in March. However, after some persuasion from FDA officials, patients and their families, the committee met again and decided to recommend approving the drug.
In January 2019, following an ALS diagnosis in October the previous year, Jeff Sarnacki, of Chester, Maryland, was accepted into a trial for Relyvrio. “Because of the trial, we did experience hope and a greater sense of help than had we not had that opportunity,” said Juliet Taylor, his wife and caregiver. They both believed the drug “worked for him in giving him more time.”
In June 2019, Sarnacki chose an open-label extension, offered to patients by drug researchers after a study ends, and took the active drug until he died peacefully at home under hospice care in May 2020, five days after his 60th birthday. A retired agent with the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives who later worked as a security consultant, Sarnacki lived about 19 months after diagnosis, which is shorter than the typical prognosis.
His symptoms had begun with leg cramps and foot drop in late fall 2017. At the end of life, he could only move a few fingers on his left hand and could not speak or eat by mouth; a feeding tube became necessary, Taylor said. He also took Radicava and Riluzole, the two previously approved drugs, for his ALS. “We were both incredulous that, so many years after Lou Gehrig’s own diagnosis, there were so few treatments available,” she said.
The dearth of successful treatments for ALS is “certainly not for lack of trying,” said Karen Raley Steffens, a registered nurse and ALS support services coordinator at the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Skokie, Ill. “There are thousands of researchers and scientists all over the world working tirelessly to try to develop treatments for ALS.”
Unfortunately, she adds, research takes time and exorbitant amounts of funding, while bureaucratic challenges persist. The rare disease also manifests and progresses in many different ways, so many treatments are needed.
As of 2017, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 31,000 people in the U.S. live with ALS, and an average of 5,000 people are newly diagnosed every year.
Most cases of ALS are sporadic, meaning that doctors don’t know the cause. There is about a one-year interval between symptom onset and an ALS diagnosis for most patients, so many motor neurons are lost by the time individuals can enroll in a clinical trial, said Richard Bedlack, professor of neurology and director of the Duke ALS Clinic in Durham, North Carolina.
Bedlack found the new drug, Relyvrio, to be “very promising,” which is why he testified to the FDA in favor of approval. (He’s a consultant and disease state speaker for multiple companies including Amylyx, manufacturer of Relyvrio.)
The “drug has different mechanisms of action than the currently approved treatments,” said Bedlack, who is also chief of neurology at the Durham Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He adds that, when Relyvrio is taken in addition to Riluzole, it appears to slow functional decline by an additional 25 percent and extend life by another 6 to 10 months. “It is not a cure, but it is definitely a step forward.”
T. Scott Diesing, a neurohospitalist and director of general neurology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, said he hopes the drug is “as good as people anticipated it should be, because there are not too many options for these patients.”
So far, Rouse's voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him.
ALS is 100 percent fatal, with some patients dying as soon as a year after diagnosis. A few have lasted as long as 15 years, but those are the exceptions, Diesing said.
“If this drug can provide even months of additional life, or would maintain quality of life, that’s a big deal,” he notes, adding that “the patients are saying, ‘I know it’s not proven conclusively, but what do we have to lose?’ So, they would like to try it while additional studies are ongoing.” The drug has already been approved in Canada.
As his disease progresses, Rouse hopes to get a speech-to-text voice-generating computer that he can control with his eyes. So far, his voice is holding up, but he knows the day will come when ALS will steal that and much more from him. He works at I AM ALS, a patient-led community, and six of his friends have already died of the disease.
“Every time I lose a friend to ALS, I grieve and am sad but I resolve myself to keep working harder for them, myself and others,” Rouse said. “People living with ALS find great purpose in life advocating and trying to make a difference.”
The Friday Five covers important stories in health and science research that you may have missed - usually over the previous week, but today's episode is a lookback on important studies over the month of September.
Most recently, on September 27, pharmaceuticals Biogen and Eisai announced that a clinical trial showed their drug, lecanemab, can slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend and the new month.
This Friday Five episode covers the following studies published and announced over the past month:
- A new drug is shown to slow the rate of Alzheimer's disease
- The need for speed if you want to reduce your risk of dementia
- How to refreeze the north and south poles
- Ancient wisdom about Neti pots could pay off for Covid
- Two women, one man and a baby