This is a guest post by Amy Koski who manages the Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy at Oregon Health Sciences University in Portland, Oregon.
The work of gene therapy, and fertility broadly, is one of global scientific collaboration (and some competition). I have started projects in Thailand, China, and Greece and, in our lab alone, I have secured visas for Chinese, Thai, Korean, Iranian, Spanish, and Russian scientists.
Most importantly, however, this work and the next generation of humanity depends on women who donate their embryos for scientific study and share their wombs.
On Tuesday, ivfmeeting.com hosted a special conference “IVF In Times of Conflict”. The list of speakers were mostly Ukrainian – shockingly, some still in Kyiv. I came home from that meeting and spiraled into a sobbing ball on my bed. I share with you the takeaways below.
Please stop reading now if you are concerned about being triggered – I was.
1. Embryologists are transferring thousands of cryopreserved human embryos out of Ukraine and into surrounding countries to save the hope that families once had in creating a future child. This task is difficult and dangerous and fraught with all sorts of ethical, regulatory, and legal challenges today and in the years to come. These embryos must constantly be submerged in liquid nitrogen or they will be destroyed, supplies – if found – are likely too dangerous to obtain. The tanks are HEAVY. And we won’t even get into the challenges behind frantically moving embryos and later identifying them….
2. Ukrainian IVF clinics have very favorable regulation that allows for a robust surrogacy program. I would imagine a similar framework to what we have in here Oregon. The Ukrainian teams described that 100 embryos were being transferred every month to surrogate woman in Ukraine pre-war. Conceivably we could estimate that about 1000 women in Ukraine today are carrying pregnancies that do not belong to them. These women are calling clinics – trying to do the right thing and identify the intended parents – however the challenges are incredible. Some of these surrogates are turning to terminate the pregnancies, regardless of the stage. [Please consider putting aside your feelings about surrogacy or abortion and simply consider these women and the added turmoil that they must be feeling in this moment.] These women are fleeing for their lives, while literally carrying the life of a child that does not belong to them, and they may or may not ever locate the intended family again. My heart and soul aches for these women – I want to find all of them – give them the best medical care – and help them make rationale decisions in a safe space. They have already sacrificed so much to help another person become a parent – this burden is too much.
3. In the pre-war times, I engaged in a heated exchange with a Ukrainian IVF scientist at a meeting in Philadelphia – we disagreed on most things related to our understanding of a particular gene therapy technique. We saw each other again yesterday via zoom. He sat in the dark, alone, in a basement in Kyiv talking with us about IVF.
He simply said, “Yeah, I am here. I’m not hiding. I’m in Kyiv.”
“I am jobless.”
“I am just here protecting embryos.”