Sharon Kochlany and Vanessa Colimorio's four-year-old twin girls had a classic school assignment recently: make a family tree. They drew themselves and their one-year-old brother branching off from their moms, with aunts, uncles, and grandparents forking off to the sides.
The recently-gained sovereignty of queer families stands to be lost if a consumer DNA test brings a stranger's identity out of the woodwork.
What you don't see in the invisible space between Kochlany and Colimorio, however, is the sperm donor they used to conceive all three children.
To look at a family tree like this is to see in its purest form that kinship can supersede biology—the boundaries of where this family starts and stops are clear to everyone in it, in spite of a third party's genetic involvement. This kind of self-definition has always been synonymous with LGBTQ families, especially those that rely on donor gametes (sperm or eggs) to exist.
But the world around them has changed quite suddenly: The recent consumer DNA testing boom has made it more complicated than ever for families built through reproductive technology—openly, not secretively—to maintain the strong sense of autonomy and privacy that can be crucial for their emotional security. Prospective parents and cryobanks are now mulling how best to bring a new generation of donor-conceived people into this world in a way that leaves open the choice to know more about their ancestry without obliterating an equally important choice: the right not to know about biological relatives.
For queer parents who have long fought for social acceptance, having a biological relationship to their children has been revolutionary, and using an unknown donor as a means to this end especially so. Getting help from a friend often comes with the expectation that the friend will also have social involvement in the family, which some people are comfortable with, but being able to access sperm from an unknown donor—which queer parents have only been able to openly do since the early 1980s—grants them the reproductive autonomy to create families seemingly on their own. That recently-gained sovereignty stands to be lost if a consumer DNA test brings a stranger's identity out of the woodwork.
At the same time, it's natural for donor-conceived people to want to know more about where they come from ethnically, even if they don't want to know the identity of their donor. As a donor-conceived person myself, I know my donor's self-reported ethnicity, but have often wondered how accurate it is.
Opening the Pandora's box of a consumer DNA test as a way to find out has always felt profoundly unappealing to me, however. Many people have accidentally learned they're donor-conceived by unwittingly using these tools, but I already know that about myself going in, and subsequently know I'll be connected to a large web of people whose existence I'm not interested in learning about. In addition to possibly identifying my anonymous donor, his family could also show up, along with any donor-siblings—other people with whom I share a donor. My single lesbian mom is enough for me, and the trade off to learn more about my ethnic ancestry has never seemed worth it.
In 1992, when I was born, no one was planning for how consumer DNA tests might upend or illuminate one's sense of self. But the donor community has always had to stay nimble with balancing privacy concerns and psychological well-being, so it should come as no surprise that figuring out how to do so in 2020 includes finding a way to offer ancestry insight while circumventing consumer DNA tests.
A New Paradigm
This is the rationale behind unprecedented industry news that LeapsMag can exclusively break: Within the next few weeks, California Cryobank, the largest cryobank in the country, will begin offering genetically-verified ancestry information on the free public part of every donor's anonymous profile in its database, something no other cryobanks yet offer (an exact launch date was not available at the time of publication). Currently, California Cryobank's donor profiles include a short self-reported list that might merely say, "Ancestry: German, Lebanese, Scottish."
The new information will be a report in pie chart form that details exactly what percentages of a donor's DNA come from up to 26 ethnicities—it's analogous to, but on a smaller scale than, the format offered by consumer DNA testing companies, and uses the same base technology that looks for single nucleotide polymorphisms in DNA that are associated with specific ethnicities. But crucially, because the donor takes the DNA test through California Cryobank, not a consumer-facing service, the information is not connected in a network to anyone else's DNA test. It's also taken before any offspring exist so there's no chance of revealing a donor-conceived person's identity this way.
Later, when a donor-conceived person is born, grows up, and wants information about their ethnicity from the donor side, all they need is their donor's anonymous ID number to look it up. The donor-conceived person never takes a genetic test, and therefore also can't accidentally find donor siblings this way. People who want to be connected to donor siblings can use a sibling registry where other people who want to be found share donor ID numbers and look for matches (this is something that's been available for decades, and remains so).
"With genetic testing, you have no control over who reaches out to you, and at what point in your life."
California Cryobank will require all new donors to consent to this extra level of genetic testing, setting a new standard for what information prospective parents and donor-conceived people can expect to have. In the immediate, this information will be most useful for prospective parents looking for donors with specific backgrounds, possibly ones similar to their own.
It's a solution that was actually hiding in plain sight. Two years ago, California Cryobank's partner Sema4, the company handling the genetic carrier testing that's used to screen for heritable diseases, started analyzing ethnic data in its samples. That extra information was being collected because it can help calculate a more accurate assessment of genetic risks that run in certain populations—like Ashkenazi Jews and Tay Sachs disease—than relying on oral family histories. Shortly after a plan to start collecting these extra data, Jamie Shamonki, chief medical officer of California Cryobank, realized the companies would be sitting on a goldmine for a different reason.
"I didn't want to use one of these genetic testing companies like Ancestry to accomplish this," says Shamonki. "The whole thing we're trying to accomplish is also privacy."
Consumer-facing DNA testing companies are not HIPAA compliant (whereas Sema4, which isn't direct-to-consumer, is HIPAA compliant), which means there are no legal privacy protections covering people who add their DNA to these databases. Although some companies, like 23andMe, allow users to opt-out of being connected with genetic relatives, the language can be confusing to navigate, requires a high level of knowledge and self-advocacy on the user's part, and, as an opt-out system, is not set up to protect the user from unwanted information by default; many unwittingly walk right into such information as a result.
Additionally, because consumer-facing DNA testing companies operate outside the legal purview that applies to other health care entities, like hospitals, even a person who does opt-out of being linked to genetic relatives is not protected in perpetuity from being re-identified in the future by a change in company policy. The safest option for people with privacy concerns is to stay out of these databases altogether.
For California Cryobank, the new information about donor heritage won't retroactively be added to older profiles in the system, so donor-conceived people who already exist won't benefit from the ancestry tool, but it'll be the new standard going forward. The company has about 500 available donors right now, many of which have been in their registry for a while; about 100 of those donors, all new, will have this ancestry data on their profiles.
Shamonki says it has taken about two years to get to the point of publicly including ancestry information on a donor's profile because it takes about nine months of medical and psychological screening for a donor to go from walking through the door to being added to their registry. The company wanted to wait to launch until it could offer this information for a significant number of donors. As more new donors come online under the new protocol, the number with ancestry information on their profiles will go up.
For Parents: An Unexpected Complication
While this change will no doubt be welcome progress for LGBTQ families contemplating parenthood, it'll never be possible to put this entire new order back in the box. What are such families who already have donor-conceived children losing in today's world of widespread consumer genetic testing?
Kochlany and Colimorio's twins aren't themselves much older than the moment at-home DNA testing really started to take off. They were born in 2015, and two years later the industry saw its most significant spike. By now, more than 26 million people's DNA is in databases like 23andMe and Ancestry; as a result, it's estimated that within a year, 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable through these consumer databases, by way of genetic third cousins, even if they didn't want to be found and never took the test themselves. This was the principle behind solving the Golden State Killer cold case.
The waning of privacy through consumer DNA testing fundamentally clashes with the priorities of the cyrobank industry, which has long sought to protect the privacy of donor-conceived people, even as open identification became standard. Since the 1980s, donors have been able to allow their identity to be released to any offspring who is at least 18 and wants the information. Lesbian moms pushed for this option early on so their children—who would obviously know they couldn't possibly be the biological product of both parents—would never feel cut off from the chance to know more about themselves. But importantly, the openness is not a two-way street: the donors can't ever ask for the identities of their offspring. It's the latter that consumer DNA testing really puts at stake.
"23andMe basically created the possibility that there will be donors who will have contact with their donor-conceived children, and that's not something that I think the donor community is comfortable with," says I. Glenn Cohen, director of Harvard Law School's Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics. "That's about the donor's autonomy, not the rearing parents' autonomy, or the donor-conceived child's autonomy."
Kochlany and Colimorio have an open identification donor and fully support their children reaching out to California Cryobank to get more information about him if they want to when they're 18, but having a singular name revealed isn't the same thing as having contact, nor is it the same thing as revealing a web of dozens of extended genetic relations. Their concern now is that if their kids participate in genetic testing, a stranger—someone they're careful to refer to as only "the donor" and never "dad"—will reach out to the children to begin some kind of relationship. They know other people who are contemplating giving their children DNA tests, and feel staunchly that it wouldn't be right for their family.
"With genetic testing, you have no control over who reaches out to you, and at what point in your life," Kochlany says. "[People] reaching out and trying to say, 'Hey I know who your dad is' throws a curveball. It's like, 'Wait, I never thought I had a dad.' It might put insecurities in their minds."
"We want them to have the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to reach out," Colimorio adds.
Kochlany says that when their twins are old enough to start asking questions, she and Colimorio plan to frame it like this: "The donor was kind of like a technology that helped us make you a person, and make sure that you exist," she says, role playing a conversation with their kids. "But it's not necessarily that you're looking to this person [for] support or love, or because you're missing a piece."
It's a line in the sand that's present even for couples still far off from conceiving. When Mallory Schwartz, a film and TV producer in Los Angeles, and Lauren Pietra, a marriage and family therapy associate (and Shamonki's step-daughter), talk about getting married someday, it's a package deal with talking about how they'll approach having kids. They feel there are too many variables and choices to make around family planning as a same-sex couple these days to not have those conversations simultaneously. Consumer DNA databases are already on their minds.
"It frustrates me that the DNA databases are just totally unregulated," says Schwartz. "I hope they are by the time we do this. I think everyone deserves a right to privacy when making your family [using a sperm donor]."
"I wouldn't want to create a world where people who are donor-conceived feel like they can't participate in this technology because they're trying to shut out [other] information."
On the prospect of having a donor relation pop up non-consensually for a future child, Pietra says, "I don't like it. It would be really disappointing if the child didn't want [contact], and unfortunately they're on the receiving end."
You can see how important preserving the right to keep this door closed is when you look at what's going on at The Sperm Bank of California. This pioneering cryobank was the first in the world to openly serve LGBTQ people and single women, and also the first to offer the open identification option when it opened in 1982, but not as many people are asking for their donor's identity as expected.
"We're finding a third of young people are coming forward for their donor's identity," says Alice Ruby, executive director. "We thought it would be a higher number." Viewed the other way, two-thirds of the donor-conceived people who could ethically get their donor's identity through The Sperm Bank of California are not asking the cryobank for it.
Ruby says that part of what historically made an open identification program appealing, rather than invasive or nerve-wracking, is how rigidly it's always been formatted around mutual consent, and protects against surprises for all parties. Those [donor-conceived people] who wanted more information were never barred from it, while those who wanted to remain in the dark could. No one group's wish eclipsed the other's. The potential breakdown of a system built around consent, expectations, and respect for privacy is why unregulated consumer DNA testing is most concerning to her as a path for connecting with genetic relatives.
For the last few decades in cryobanks around the world, the largest cohort of people seeking out donor sperm has been lesbian couples, followed by single women. For infertile heterosexual couples, the smallest client demographic, Ruby says donor sperm offers a solution to a medical problem, but in contrast, it historically "provided the ability for [lesbian] couples and single moms to have some reproductive autonomy." Yes, it was still a solution to a biological problem, but it was also a solution to a social one.
The Sperm Bank of California updated its registration forms to include language urging parents, donor-conceived people, and donors not to use consumer DNA tests, and to go through the cryobank if they, understandably, want to learn more about who they're connected to. But truthfully, there's not much else cryobanks can do to protect clients on any side of the donor transaction from surprise contact right now—especially not from relatives of the donor who may not even know someone in their family has donated sperm.
A Tricky Position
Personally, I've known I was donor-conceived from day one. It has never been a source of confusion, angst, or curiosity, and in fact has never loomed particularly large for me in any way. I see it merely as a type of reproductive technology—on par with in vitro fertilization—that enabled me to exist, and, now that I do exist, is irrelevant. Being confronted with my donor's identity or any donor siblings would make this fact of my conception bigger than I need it to be, as an adult with a full-blown identity derived from all of my other life experiences. But I still wonder about the minutiae of my ethnicity in much the same way as anyone else who wonders, and feel there's no safe way for me to find out without relinquishing some of my existential independence.
The author and her mom in spring of 1998.
"People obviously want to participate in 23andMe and Ancestry because they're interested in knowing more about themselves," says Shamonki. "I wouldn't want to create a world where people who are donor-conceived feel like they can't participate in this technology because they're trying to shut out [other] information."
After all, it was the allure of that exact conceit—knowing more about oneself—that seemed to magnetically draw in millions of people to these tools in the first place. It's an experience that clearly taps into a population-wide psychic need, even—perhaps especially—if one's origins are a mystery.
In December 1958, on a vacation with his wife in Kenya, a 28-year-old British tea broker named Robin Cavendish became suddenly ill. Neither he nor his wife Diana knew it at the time, but Robin's illness would change the course of medical history forever.
Robin was rushed to a nearby hospital in Kenya where the medical staff delivered the crushing news: Robin had contracted polio, and the paralysis creeping up his body was almost certainly permanent. The doctors placed Robin on a ventilator through a tracheotomy in his neck, as the paralysis from his polio infection had rendered him unable to breathe on his own – and going off the average life expectancy at the time, they gave him only three months to live. Robin and Diana (who was pregnant at the time with their first child, Jonathan) flew back to England so he could be admitted to a hospital. They mentally prepared to wait out Robin's final days.
But Robin did something unexpected when he returned to the UK – just one of many things that would astonish doctors over the next several years: He survived. Diana gave birth to Jonathan in February 1959 and continued to visit Robin regularly in the hospital with the baby. Despite doctors warning that he would soon succumb to his illness, Robin kept living.
After a year in the hospital, Diana suggested something radical: She wanted Robin to leave the hospital and live at home in South Oxfordshire for as long as he possibly could, with her as his nurse. At the time, this suggestion was unheard of. People like Robin who depended on machinery to keep them breathing had only ever lived inside hospital walls, as the prevailing belief was that the machinery needed to keep them alive was too complicated for laypeople to operate. But Diana and Robin were up for the challenges – and the risks. Because his ventilator ran on electricity, if the house were to unexpectedly lose power, Diana would either need to restore power quickly or hand-pump air into his lungs to keep him alive.
Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
In an interview as an adult, Jonathan Cavendish reflected on his parents' decision to live outside the hospital on a ventilator: "My father's mantra was quality of life," he explained. "He could have stayed in the hospital, but he didn't think that was as good of a life as he could manage. He would rather be two minutes away from death and living a full life."
After a few years of living at home, however, Robin became tired of being confined to his bed. He longed to sit outside, to visit friends, to travel – but had no way of doing so without his ventilator. So together with his friend Teddy Hall, a professor and engineer at Oxford University, the two collaborated in 1962 to create an entirely new invention: a battery-operated wheelchair prototype with a ventilator built in. With this, Robin could now venture outside the house – and soon the Cavendish family became famous for taking vacations. It was something that, by all accounts, had never been done before by someone who was ventilator-dependent. Robin and Hall also designed a van so that the wheelchair could be plugged in and powered during travel. Jonathan Cavendish later recalled a particular family vacation that nearly ended in disaster when the van broke down outside of Barcelona, Spain:
"My poor old uncle [plugged] my father's chair into the wrong socket," Cavendish later recalled, causing the electricity to short. "There was fire and smoke, and both the van and the chair ground to a halt." Johnathan, who was eight or nine at the time, his mother, and his uncle took turns hand-pumping Robin's ventilator by the roadside for the next thirty-six hours, waiting for Professor Hall to arrive in town and repair the van. Rather than being panicked, the Cavendishes managed to turn the vigil into a party. Townspeople came to greet them, bringing food and music, and a local priest even stopped by to give his blessing.
Robin had become a pioneer, showing the world that a person with severe disabilities could still have mobility, access, and a fuller quality of life than anyone had imagined. His mission, along with Hall's, then became gifting this independence to others like himself. Robin and Hall raised money – first from the Ernest Kleinwort Charitable Trust, and then from the British Department of Health – to fund more ventilator chairs, which were then manufactured by Hall's company, Littlemore Scientific Engineering, and given to fellow patients who wanted to live full lives at home. Robin and Hall used themselves as guinea pigs, testing out different models of the chairs and collaborating with scientists to create other devices for those with disabilities. One invention, called the Possum, allowed paraplegics to control things like the telephone and television set with just a nod of the head. Robin's wheelchair was not only the first of its kind; it became the model for the respiratory wheelchairs that people still use today.
Robin went on to enjoy a long and happy life with his family at their house in South Oxfordshire, surrounded by friends who would later attest to his "down-to-earth" personality, his sense of humor, and his "irresistible" charm. When he died peacefully at his home in 1994 at age 64, he was considered the world's oldest-living person who used a ventilator outside the hospital – breaking yet another barrier for what medical science thought was possible.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter at @swattswrites.
In June 2012, Kirstie Ennis was six months into her second deployment to Afghanistan and recently promoted to sergeant. The helicopter gunner and seven others were three hours into a routine mission of combat resupplies and troop transport when their CH-53D helicopter went down hard.
Miraculously, all eight people onboard survived, but Ennis' injuries were many and severe. She had a torn rotator cuff, torn labrum, crushed cervical discs, facial fractures, deep lacerations and traumatic brain injury. Despite a severely fractured ankle, doctors managed to save her foot, for a while at least.
In November 2015, after three years of constant pain and too many surgeries to count, Ennis relented. She elected to undergo a lower leg amputation but only after she completed the 1,000-mile, 72-day Walking with the Wounded journey across the UK.
On Veteran's Day of that year, on the other side of the country, orthopedic surgeon Cato Laurencin announced a moonshot challenge he was setting out to achieve on behalf of wounded warriors like Ennis: the Hartford Engineering A Limb (HEAL) Project.
Laurencin, who is a University of Connecticut professor of chemical, materials and biomedical engineering, teamed up with experts in tissue bioengineering and regenerative medicine from Harvard, Columbia, UC Irvine and SASTRA University in India. Laurencin and his colleagues at the Connecticut Convergence Institute for Translation in Regenerative Engineering made a bold commitment to regenerate an entire limb within 15 years – by the year 2030.
Dr. Cato Laurencin pictured in his office at UConn.
Photo Credit: UConn
Regenerative Engineering -- A Whole New Field
Limb regeneration in humans has been a medical and scientific fascination for decades, with little to show for the effort. However, Laurencin believes that if we are to reach the next level of 21st century medical advances, this puzzle must be solved.
An estimated 185,000 people undergo upper or lower limb amputation every year. Despite the significant advances in electromechanical prosthetics, these individuals still lack the ability to perform complex functions such as sensation for tactile input, normal gait and movement feedback. As far as Laurencin is concerned, the only clinical answer that makes sense is to regenerate a whole functional limb.
Laurencin feels other regeneration efforts were hampered by their siloed research methods with chemists, surgeons, engineers all working separately. Success, he argues, requires a paradigm shift to a trans-disciplinary approach that brings together cutting-edge technologies from disparate fields such as biology, material sciences, physical, chemical and engineering sciences.
As the only surgeon ever inducted into the academies of Science, Medicine and Innovation, Laurencin is uniquely suited for the challenge. He is regarded as the founder of Regenerative Engineering, defined as the convergence of advanced materials sciences, stem cell sciences, physics, developmental biology and clinical translation for the regeneration of complex tissues and organ systems.
But none of this is achievable without early clinician participation across scientific fields to develop new technologies and a deeper understanding of how to harness the body's innate regenerative capabilities. "When I perform a surgical procedure or something is torn or needs to be repaired, I count on the body being involved in regenerating tissue," he says. "So, understanding how the body works to regenerate itself and harnessing that ability is an important factor for the regeneration process."
The Birth of the Vision
Laurencin's passion for regeneration began when he was a sports medicine fellow at Cornell University Medical Center in the early 1990s. There he saw a significant number of injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the major ligament that stabilizes the knee. He believed he could develop a better way to address those injuries using biomaterials to regenerate the ligament. He sketched out a preliminary drawing on a napkin one night over dinner. He has spent the next 30 years regenerating tissues, including the patented L-C ligament.
As chair of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Virginia during the peak of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Laurencin treated military personnel who survived because of improved helmets, body armor and battlefield medicine but were left with more devastating injuries, including traumatic brain injuries and limb loss.
"I was so honored to care for them and I so admired their steadfast courage that I became determined to do something big for them," says Laurencin.
When he tells people about his plans to regrow a limb, he gets a lot of eye rolls, which he finds amusing but not discouraging. Growing bone cells was relatively new when he was first focused on regenerating bone in 1987 at MIT; in 2007 he was well on his way to regenerating ligaments at UVA when many still doubted that ligaments could even be reconstructed. He and his team have already regenerated torn rotator cuff tendons and ACL ligaments using a nano-textured fabric seeded with stem cells.
Even as a finalist for the $4 million NIH Pioneer Award for high-risk/high-reward research, he faced a skeptical scientific audience in 2014. "They said, 'Well what do you plan to do?' I said 'I plan to regenerate a whole limb in people.' There was a lot of incredulousness. They stared at me and asked a lot of questions. About three days later, I received probably the best score I've ever gotten on an NIH grant."
In the Thick of the Science
Humans are born with regenerative abilities--two-year-olds have regrown fingertips--but lose that ability with age. Salamanders are the only vertebrates that can regenerate lost body parts as adults; axolotl, the rare Mexican salamander, can grow extra limbs.
The axolotl is important as a model organism because it is a four-footed vertebrate with a similar body plan to humans. Mapping the axolotl genome in 2018 enhanced scientists' genetic understanding of their evolution, development, and regeneration. Being easy to breed in captivity allowed the HEAL team to closely study these amphibians and discover a new cell type they believe may shed light on how to mimic the process in humans.
"Whenever limb regeneration takes place in the salamander, there is a huge amount of something called heparan sulfate around that area," explains Laurencin. "We thought, 'What if this heparan sulfate is the key ingredient to allowing regeneration to take place?' We found these groups of cells that were interspersed in tissues during the time of regeneration that seemed to have connections to each other that expressed this heparan sulfate."
Called GRID (Groups that are Regenerative, Interspersed and Dendritic), these cells were also recently discovered in mice. While GRID cells don't regenerate as well in mice as in salamanders, finding them in mammals was significant.
"If they're found in mice. we might be able to find these in humans in some form," Laurencin says. "We think maybe it will help us figure out regeneration or we can create cells that mimic what grid cells do and create an artificial grid cell."
What Comes Next?
Laurencin and his team have individually engineered and made every single tissue in the lower limb, including bone, cartilage, ligament, skin, nerve, blood vessels. Regenerating joints and joint tissue is the next big mile marker, which Laurencin sees as essential to regenerating a limb that functions and performs in the way he envisions.
"Using stem cells and amnion tissue, we can regenerate joints that are damaged, and have severe arthritis," he says. "We're making progress on all fronts, and making discoveries we believe are going to be helping people along the way."
That focus and advancement is vital to Ennis. After laboring over the decision to have her leg amputated below the knee, she contracted MRSA two weeks post-surgery. In less than a month, she went from a below-the-knee-amputee to a through-the-knee amputee to an above-the-knee amputee.
"A below-the-knee amputation is night-and-day from above-the-knee," she said. "You have to relearn everything. You're basically a toddler."
Kirstie Ennis pictured in July 2020.
Photo Credit: Ennis' Instagram
The clock is ticking on the timeline Laurencin set for himself. Nine years might seem like forever if you're doing time but it might appear fleeting when you're trying to create something that's never been done before. But Laurencin isn't worried. He's convinced time is on his side.
"Every week, I receive an email or a call from someone, maybe a mother whose child has lost a finger or I'm in communication with a disabled American veteran who wants to know how the progress is going. That energizes me to continue to work hard to try to create these sorts of solutions because we're talking about people and their lives."
He devotes about 60 hours a week to the project and the roughly 100 students, faculty and staff who make up the HEAL team at the Convergence Institute seem acutely aware of what's at stake and appear equally dedicated.
"We're in the thick of the science in terms of making this happen," says Laurencin. "We've moved from making the impossible possible to making the possible a reality. That's what science is all about."