SCOOP: Largest Cryobank in the U.S. to Offer Ancestry Testing
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.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”