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.
On today’s episode of Making Sense of Science, I’m honored to be joined by Dr. Paul Song, a physician, oncologist, progressive activist and biotech chief medical officer. Through his company, NKGen Biotech, Dr. Song is leveraging the power of patients’ own immune systems by supercharging the body’s natural killer cells to make new treatments for Alzheimer’s and cancer.
Whereas other treatments for Alzheimer’s focus directly on reducing the build-up of proteins in the brain such as amyloid and tau in patients will mild cognitive impairment, NKGen is seeking to help patients that much of the rest of the medical community has written off as hopeless cases, those with late stage Alzheimer’s. And in small studies, NKGen has shown remarkable results, even improvement in the symptoms of people with these very progressed forms of Alzheimer’s, above and beyond slowing down the disease.
In the realm of cancer, Dr. Song is similarly setting his sights on another group of patients for whom treatment options are few and far between: people with solid tumors. Whereas some gradual progress has been made in treating blood cancers such as certain leukemias in past few decades, solid tumors have been even more of a challenge. But Dr. Song’s approach of using natural killer cells to treat solid tumors is promising. You may have heard of CAR-T, which uses genetic engineering to introduce cells into the body that have a particular function to help treat a disease. NKGen focuses on other means to enhance the 40 plus receptors of natural killer cells, making them more receptive and sensitive to picking out cancer cells.
Paul Y. Song, MD is currently CEO and Vice Chairman of NKGen Biotech. Dr. Song’s last clinical role was Asst. Professor at the Samuel Oschin Cancer Center at Cedars Sinai Medical Center.
Dr. Song served as the very first visiting fellow on healthcare policy in the California Department of Insurance in 2013.He is currently on the advisory board of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering at the University of Chicago and a board member of Mercy Corps, The Center for Health and Democracy, and Gideon’s Promise.
Dr. Song graduated with honors from the University of Chicago and received his MD from George Washington University. He completed his residency in radiation oncology at the University of Chicago where he served as Chief Resident and did a brachytherapy fellowship at the Institute Gustave Roussy in Villejuif, France. He was also awarded an ASTRO research fellowship in 1995 for his research in radiation inducible gene therapy.
With Dr. Song’s leadership, NKGen Biotech’s work on natural killer cells represents cutting-edge science leading to key findings and important pieces of the puzzle for treating two of humanity’s most intractable diseases.
- Paul Song LinkedIn
- NKGen Biotech on Twitter - @NKGenBiotech
- NKGen Website: https://nkgenbiotech.com/
- NKGen appoints Paul Song
- Patient Story: https://pix11.com/news/local-news/long-island/promising-new-treatment-for-advanced-alzheimers-patients/
- FDA Clearance: https://nkgenbiotech.com/nkgen-biotech-receives-ind-clearance-from-fda-for-snk02-allogeneic-natural-killer-cell-therapy-for-solid-tumors/Q3 earnings data: https://www.nasdaq.com/press-release/nkgen-biotech-inc.-reports-third-quarter-2023-financial-results-and-business
From ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Could the use of robots take some of the workload off teachers, add engagement among students, and ultimately invigorate learning by taking it to a new level that is more consonant with the everyday experiences of young people? Do robots have the potential to become full-fledged educators and further push human teachers out of the profession? The preponderance of opinion on this subject is that, just as AI and medical technology are not going to eliminate doctors, robot teachers will never replace human teachers. Rather, they will change the job of teaching.
A 2017 study led by Google executive James Manyika suggested that skills like creativity, emotional intelligence, and communication will always be needed in the classroom and that robots aren’t likely to provide them at the same level that humans naturally do. But robot teachers do bring advantages, such as a depth of subject knowledge that teachers can’t match, and they’re great for student engagement.
The teacher and robot can complement each other in new ways, with the teacher facilitating interactions between robots and students. So far, this is the case with teaching “assistants” being adopted now in China, Japan, the U.S., and Europe. In this scenario, the robot (usually the SoftBank child-size robot NAO) is a tool for teaching mainly science, technology, engineering, and math (the STEM subjects), but the teacher is very involved in planning, overseeing, and evaluating progress. The students get an entertaining and enriched learning experience, and some of the teaching load is taken off the teacher. At least, that’s what researchers have been able to observe so far.
To be sure, there are some powerful arguments for having robots in the classroom. A not-to-be-underestimated one is that robots “speak the language” of today’s children, who have been steeped in technology since birth. These children are adept at navigating a media-rich environment that is highly visual and interactive. They are plugged into the Internet 24-7. They consume music, games, and huge numbers of videos on a weekly basis. They expect to be dazzled because they are used to being dazzled by more and more spectacular displays of digital artistry. Education has to compete with social media and the entertainment vehicles of students’ everyday lives.
Another compelling argument for teaching robots is that they help prepare students for the technological realities they will encounter in the real world when robots will be ubiquitous. From childhood on, they will be interacting and collaborating with robots in every sphere of their lives from the jobs they do to dealing with retail robots and helper robots in the home. Including robots in the classroom is one way of making sure that children of all socioeconomic backgrounds will be better prepared for a highly automated age, when successfully using robots will be as essential as reading and writing. We’ve already crossed this threshold with computers and smartphones.
Students need multimedia entertainment with their teaching. This is something robots can provide through their ability to connect to the Internet and act as a centralized host to videos, music, and games. Children also need interaction, something robots can deliver up to a point, but which humans can surpass. The education of a child is not just intended to make them technologically functional in a wired world, it’s to help them grow in intellectual, creative, social, and emotional ways. When considered through this perspective, it opens the door to questions concerning just how far robots should go. Robots don’t just teach and engage children; they’re designed to tug at their heartstrings.
It’s no coincidence that many toy makers and manufacturers are designing cute robots that look and behave like real children or animals, says Turkle. “When they make eye contact and gesture toward us, they predispose us to view them as thinking and caring,” she has written in The Washington Post. “They are designed to be cute, to provide a nurturing response” from the child. As mentioned previously, this nurturing experience is a powerful vehicle for drawing children in and promoting strong attachment. But should children really love their robots?
ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold (January 9, 2024).
St. Martin’s Publishing Group
The problem, once again, is that a child can be lulled into thinking that she’s in an actual relationship, when a robot can’t possibly love her back. If adults have these vulnerabilities, what might such asymmetrical relationships do to the emotional development of a small child? Turkle notes that while we tend to ascribe a mind and emotions to a socially interactive robot, “simulated thinking may be thinking, but simulated feeling is never feeling, and simulated love is never love.”
Always a consideration is the fact that in the first few years of life, a child’s brain is undergoing rapid growth and development that will form the foundation of their lifelong emotional health. These formative experiences are literally shaping the child’s brain, their expectations, and their view of the world and their place in it. In Alone Together, Turkle asks: What are we saying to children about their importance to us when we’re willing to outsource their care to a robot? A child might be superficially entertained by the robot while his self-esteem is systematically undermined.
Research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Still, in the case of robot nannies in the home, is active, playful engagement with a robot for a few hours a day any more harmful than several hours in front of a TV or with an iPad? Some, like Xiong, regard interacting with a robot as better than mere passive entertainment. iPal’s manufacturers say that their robot can’t replace parents or teachers and is best used by three- to eight-year-olds after school, while they wait for their parents to get off work. But as robots become ever-more sophisticated, they’re expected to perform more of the tasks of day-to-day care and to be much more emotionally advanced. There is no question children will form deep attachments to some of them. And research has emerged showing that there are clear downsides to child-robot relationships.
Some studies, performed by Turkle and fellow MIT colleague Cynthia Breazeal, have revealed a darker side to the child-robot bond. Turkle has reported extensively on these studies in The Washington Post and in her book Alone Together. Most children love robots, but some act out their inner bully on the hapless machines, hitting and kicking them and otherwise trying to hurt them. The trouble is that the robot can’t fight back, teaching children that they can bully and abuse without consequences. As in any other robot relationship, such harmful behavior could carry over into the child’s human relationships.
And, ironically, it turns out that communicative machines don’t actually teach kids good communication skills. It’s well known that parent-child communication in the first three years of life sets the stage for a very young child’s intellectual and academic success. Verbal back-and-forth with parents and care-givers is like fuel for a child’s growing brain. One article that examined several types of play and their effect on children’s communication skills, published in JAMA Pediatrics in 2015, showed that babies who played with electronic toys—like the popular robot dog Aibo—show a decrease in both the quantity and quality of their language skills.
Anna V. Sosa of the Child Speech and Language Lab at Northern Arizona University studied twenty-six ten- to sixteen- month-old infants to compare the growth of their language skills after they played with three types of toys: electronic toys like a baby laptop and talking farm; traditional toys like wooden puzzles and building blocks; and books read aloud by their parents. The play that produced the most growth in verbal ability was having books read to them by a caregiver, followed by play with traditional toys. Language gains after playing with electronic toys came dead last. This form of play involved the least use of adult words, the least conversational turntaking, and the least verbalizations from the children. While the study sample was small, it’s not hard to extrapolate that no electronic toy or even more abled robot could supply the intimate responsiveness of a parent reading stories to a child, explaining new words, answering the child’s questions, and modeling the kind of back- and-forth interaction that promotes empathy and reciprocity in relationships.
Most experts acknowledge that robots can be valuable educational tools. But they can’t make a child feel truly loved, validated, and valued. That’s the job of parents, and when parents abdicate this responsibility, it’s not only the child who misses out on one of life’s most profound experiences.
We really don’t know how the tech-savvy children of today will ultimately process their attachments to robots and whether they will be excessively predisposed to choosing robot companionship over that of humans. It’s possible their techno literacy will draw for them a bold line between real life and a quasi-imaginary history with a robot. But it will be decades before we see long-term studies culminating in sufficient data to help scientists, and the rest of us, to parse out the effects of a lifetime spent with robots.
This is an excerpt from ROBOTS AND THE PEOPLE WHO LOVE THEM: Holding on to Our Humanity in an Age of Social Robots by Eve Herold. The book will be published on January 9, 2024.