Technology is Redefining the Age of 'Older Mothers'
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 inCell 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.
Harsh Mathur was a graduate physics student at Yale University in late 1989 when faculty announced they had failed to replicate claims made by scientists at the University of Utah and the University of Wolverhampton in England.
Such work is routine. Replicating or attempting to replicate the contraptions, calculations and conclusions crafted by colleagues is foundational to the scientific method. But in this instance, Yale’s findings were reported globally.
“I had a ringside view, and it was crazy,” recalls Mathur, now a professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.
Yale’s findings drew so much attention because initial experiments by Stanley Pons of Utah and Martin Fleischmann of Wolverhampton led to a startling claim: They were able to fuse atoms at room temperature – a scientific El Dorado known as “cold fusion.”
Nuclear fusion powers the stars in the universe. However, star cores must be at least 23.4 million degrees Fahrenheit and under extraordinary pressure to achieve fusion. Pons and Fleischmann claimed they had created an almost limitless source of power achievable at any temperature.
Like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances.
But about six months after they made their startling announcement, the pair’s findings were discredited by researchers at Yale and the California Institute of Technology. It was one of the first instances of a major scientific debunking covered by mass media.
Some scholars say the media attention for cold fusion stemmed partly from a dazzling announcement made three years prior in 1986: Scientists had created the first “superconductor” – material that could transmit electrical current with little or no resistance. It drew global headlines – and whetted the public’s appetite for announcements of scientific breakthroughs that could cause economic transformations.
But like fusion, superconductivity can only be achieved in mostly impractical circumstances: It must operate either at temperatures of at least negative 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or under pressures of around 150,000 pounds per square inch. Superconductivity that functions in closer to a normal environment would cut energy costs dramatically while also opening infinite possibilities for computing, space travel and other applications.
In July, a group of South Korean scientists posted material claiming they had created an iron crystalline substance called LK-99 that could achieve superconductivity at slightly above room temperature and at ambient pressure. The group partners with the Quantum Energy Research Centre, a privately-held enterprise in Seoul, and their claims drew global headlines.
Their work was also debunked. But in the age of internet and social media, the process was compressed from half-a-year into days. And it did not require researchers at world-class universities.
One of the most compelling critiques came from Derrick VanGennep. Although he works in finance, he holds a Ph.D. in physics and held a postdoctoral position at Harvard. The South Korean researchers had posted a video of a nugget of LK-99 in what they claimed was the throes of the Meissner effect – an expulsion of the substance’s magnetic field that would cause it to levitate above a magnet. Unless Hollywood magic is involved, only superconducting material can hover in this manner.
That claim made VanGennep skeptical, particularly since LK-99’s levitation appeared unenthusiastic at best. In fact, a corner of the material still adhered to the magnet near its center. He thought the video demonstrated ferromagnetism – two magnets repulsing one another. He mixed powdered graphite with super glue, stuck iron filings to its surface and mimicked the behavior of LK-99 in his own video, which was posted alongside the researchers’ video.
VanGennep believes the boldness of the South Korean claim was what led to him and others in the scientific community questioning it so quickly.
“The swift replication attempts stemmed from the combination of the extreme claim, the fact that the synthesis for this material is very straightforward and fast, and the amount of attention that this story was getting on social media,” he says.
But practicing scientists were suspicious of the data as well. Michael Norman, director of the Argonne Quantum Institute at the Argonne National Laboratory just outside of Chicago, had doubts immediately.
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication.
“It wasn’t a very polished paper,” Norman says of the Korean scientists’ work. That opinion was reinforced, he adds, when it turned out the paper had been posted online by one of the researchers prior to seeking publication in a peer-reviewed journal. Although Norman and Mathur say that is routine with scientific research these days, Norman notes it was posted by one of the junior researchers over the doubts of two more senior scientists on the project.
Norman also raises doubts about the data reported. Among other issues, he observes that the samples created by the South Korean researchers contained traces of copper sulfide that could inadvertently amplify findings of conductivity.
The lack of the Meissner effect also caught Mathur’s attention. “Ferromagnets tend to be unstable when they levitate,” he says, adding that the video “just made me feel unconvinced. And it made me feel like they hadn't made a very good case for themselves.”
Will this saga hurt or even affect the careers of the South Korean researchers? Possibly not, if the previous fusion example is any indication. Despite being debunked, cold fusion claimants Pons and Fleischmann didn’t disappear. They moved their research to automaker Toyota’s IMRA laboratory in France, which along with the Japanese government spent tens of millions of dollars on their work before finally pulling the plug in 1998.
Fusion has since been created in laboratories, but being unable to reproduce the density of a star’s core would require excruciatingly high temperatures to achieve – about 160 million degrees Fahrenheit. A recently released Government Accountability Office report concludes practical fusion likely remains at least decades away.
However, like Pons and Fleischman, the South Korean researchers are not going anywhere. They claim that LK-99’s Meissner effect is being obscured by the fact the substance is both ferromagnetic and diamagnetic. They have filed for a patent in their country. But for now, those claims remain chimerical.
In the meantime, the consensus as to when a room temperature superconductor will be achieved is mixed. VenGennep – who studied the issue during his graduate and postgraduate work – puts the chance of creating such a superconductor by 2050 at perhaps 50-50. Mathur believes it could happen sooner, but adds that research on the topic has been going on for nearly a century, and that it has seen many plateaus.
“There's always this possibility that there's going to be something out there that we're going to discover unexpectedly,” Norman notes. The only certainty in this age of social media is that it will be put through the rigors of replication instantly.
When David M. Kurtz was doing his clinical fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center in 2009, specializing in lymphoma treatments, he found himself grappling with a question no one could answer. A typical regimen for these blood cancers prescribed six cycles of chemotherapy, but no one knew why. "The number seemed to be drawn out of a hat," Kurtz says. Some patients felt much better after just two doses, but had to endure the toxic effects of the entire course. For some elderly patients, the side effects of chemo are so harsh, they alone can kill. Others appeared to be cancer-free on the CT scans after the requisite six but then succumbed to it months later.
"Anecdotally, one patient decided to stop therapy after one dose because he felt it was so toxic that he opted for hospice instead," says Kurtz, now an oncologist at the center. "Five years down the road, he was alive and well. For him, just one dose was enough." Others would return for their one-year check up and find that their tumors grew back. Kurtz felt that while CT scans and MRIs were powerful tools, they weren't perfect ones. They couldn't tell him if there were any cancer cells left, stealthily waiting to germinate again. The scans only showed the tumor once it was back.
Blood cancers claim about 68,000 people a year, with a new diagnosis made about every three minutes, according to the Leukemia Research Foundation. For patients with B-cell lymphoma, which Kurtz focuses on, the survival chances are better than for some others. About 60 percent are cured, but the remaining 40 percent will relapse—possibly because they will have a negative CT scan, but still harbor malignant cells. "You can't see this on imaging," says Michael Green, who also treats blood cancers at University of Texas MD Anderson Medical Center.
The new blood test is sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
Kurtz wanted a better diagnostic tool, so he started working on a blood test that could capture the circulating tumor DNA or ctDNA. For that, he needed to identify the specific mutations typical for B-cell lymphomas. Working together with another fellow PhD student Jake Chabon, Kurtz finally zeroed-in on the tumor's genetic "appearance" in 2017—a pair of specific mutations sitting in close proximity to each other—a rare and telling sign. The human genome contains about 3 billion base pairs of nucleotides—molecules that compose genes—and in case of the B-cell lymphoma cells these two mutations were only a few base pairs apart. "That was the moment when the light bulb went on," Kurtz says.
The duo formed a company named Foresight Diagnostics, focusing on taking the blood test to the clinic. But knowing the tumor's mutational signature was only half the process. The other was fishing the tumor's DNA out of patients' bloodstream that contains millions of other DNA molecules, explains Chabon, now Foresight's CEO. It would be like looking for an escaped criminal in a large crowd. Kurtz and Chabon solved the problem by taking the tumor's "mug shot" first. Doctors would take the biopsy pre-treatment and sequence the tumor, as if taking the criminal's photo. After treatments, they would match the "mug shot" to all DNA molecules derived from the patient's blood sample to see if any molecular criminals managed to escape the chemo.
Foresight isn't the only company working on blood-based tumor detection tests, which are dubbed liquid biopsies—other companies such as Natera or ArcherDx developed their own. But in a recent study, the Foresight team showed that their method is significantly more sensitive in "fishing out" the cancer molecules than existing tests. Chabon says that this test can detect circulating tumor DNA in concentrations that are nearly 100 times lower than other methods. Put another way, it's sensitive enough to spot one cancerous perpetrator amongst one million other DNA molecules.
They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers.
"It increases the sensitivity of detection and really catches most patients who are going to progress," says Green, the University of Texas oncologist who wasn't involved in the study, but is familiar with the method. It would also allow monitoring patients during treatment and making better-informed decisions about which therapy regimens would be most effective. "It's a minimally invasive test," Green says, and "it gives you a very high confidence about what's going on."
Having shown that the test works well, Kurtz and Chabon are planning a new trial in which oncologists would rely on their method to decide when to stop or continue chemo. They also aim to extend their test to detect other malignancies such as lung, breast or colorectal cancers. The latest genome sequencing technologies have sequenced and catalogued over 2,500 different tumor specimens and the Foresight team is analyzing this data, says Chabon, which gives the team the opportunity to create more molecular "mug shots."
The team hopes that that their blood cancer test will become available to patients within about five years, making doctors' job easier, and not only at the biological level. "When I tell patients, "good news, your cancer is in remission', they ask me, 'does it mean I'm cured?'" Kurtz says. "Right now I can't answer this question because I don't know—but I would like to." His company's test, he hopes, will enable him to reply with certainty. He'd very much like to have the power of that foresight.
This article is republished from our archives to coincide with Blood Cancer Awareness Month, which highlights progress in cancer diagnostics and treatment.
Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.