Big Gay Ovaries

by by Nupur Shridhar

Scientists at Brown University and Women & Infants Hospital have created the first artificial ovary that can grow oocytes (basically immature egg cells) into mature human eggs in a laboratory setting: a remarkable achievement that will likely pave the way for more research into the sources of and solutions to female infertility. But as with every discovery, there’s always a social context—and new means of reproduction bring with them the potential to both alter and reinforce existing sexual identities.

In a press release issued by the university, Sandra Carson, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Alpert Medical School and director of the Division of Reproductive Endocrinology and Infertility at Women & Infants Hospital, explains the significance of their research. “An ovary is composed of three main cell types, and this is the first time that anyone has created a 3-D tissue structure with triple cell lines.” Unlike cell cultures growing in flat Petri dishes, the artificial ovary actually looks and functions like the real thing, with all three cell types growing and interacting with one another in a 3-D moldable agarose gel.

This “3-D Petri dish” was invented in the lab of Jeffrey Morgan, Associate Professor of Medical Science and Engineering, who co-authored the paper in the Aug. 25 online issue of the Journal of Assisted Reproduction and Genetics. His scaffold features honeycombs of theca cells—donated by patients at Women & Infants Hospital, ages 25-46—that successfully nurture implanted granulosa cells and oocytes into maturity. Having such a reliable laboratory model will not only help researchers preserve the fertility of women whose eggs are exposed to toxins like radiation or chemotherapeutic agents, but also increase our knowledge of reproductive health in general.

Carson and Morgan were able to fund their work partly through a Collaborative Research Award from the Rhode Island Science and Technology Advisory Council (STAC), which is doled out to research with “commercial potential,” a principle that suggests that successful scientific discovery can, and ought to, bolster economic health as well. As Morgan points out, “it makes sense because it’s state money,” and indeed, this discovery means more money for our state. Morgan has launched the RI-based biotechnology company MicroTissues, Inc., which markets his 3-D scaffold as a tool for other scientists and businessmen. “Not only does our model reduce the need for animal testing, it also works for skin, liver, and cartilage cells,” says Morgan, which makes their discovery relevant to many scientific fields.

It’s easy to start daydreaming about the consequences, both good and maybe not-so-good, of our interest in reproductive technology, which will only gain more and more attention as women continue to have children after their reproductive prime and as infertility rates increase worldwide—either a result of all the hormones we’ve put in our milk or our new personal/statistical sensitivity to the future of our fecundity. After all, we seem to be the only species that can provide consistent solutions to the problem of reproduction, whether it’s through the use of safer-sex devices or fertility therapies.

Perhaps our new ways of thinking about intercourse stem from an unnatural separation of sex from reproduction and the stability and happiness that can come from family. In the animal kingdom, infertile individuals have been thought to contribute little to the future of their species—but what about Virginia Woolf, Emily Dickinson, Rosalind Franklin, Julia Child, and Frida Kahlo? Try as I might, I can’t separate my desire for my own family from my identity as a queer female: why do I want for myself a type of relationship that historically and biologically has [re]produced nothing, and that, for the most part, leaves lovers vulnerable to circuits of power that privilege others?

In most academic discourse, very little attention is paid to how discoveries and policies of any kind, scientific or political, might affect queer-identifying individuals and couples. In 2004, researchers at the Tokyo University of Agriculture were able to create a fatherless mouse by combining genetic material from two mouse ova, a process known as parthenogenesis. The fatherless mice appeared to be as healthy as their heterosexually-produced counterparts, and even lived longer, but the laws of human parthenogenesis remain—the microscopic sleight of hand that fused two female mice gametes together fails to have the same effect on human eggs.

There are few things less scientific than admitting defeat, but I’m only willing to accept this conclusion if researchers and laypersons alike acknowledged the inherent queerness of infertile heterosexual couples who, like practicing homosexuals, cannot rely on their genes to bind them to their cultures and communities. In order to be honest about our motives and interests, it’s important to admit that perhaps Jon + Kate abused their reproductive privileges, and that science, like all other disciplines, tends to favor those already possessing power. I’m certain that we’d be more considerate of homosexuals—not the theatre critics on the Upper East Side but the lean, hard butches of the Midwest - if we celebrated our queerness (instead of being ashamed of it), or if homosexuals were in any kind of position to fund scientific research, to insert themselves into the [economic] history of our nation, instead of facing discrimination on the street and in the workplace.

No doubt that, like me, these queers find themselves fantasizing about families and futures they can create, or might have had, if marriage and adoption policies were different, or if our bodies didn’t require artificial ovaries. When asked about the implications of his work, however, Morgan remains grounded, and responds in true scientific fashion. We’re still a long way off from doing much more than maturing unfertilized eggs in vitro—eggs still need sperm and a place to bed down—and to him, this isn’t about where we’re headed but about what we can do now: “I don’t see [this research] as separating sex from reproduction. Maybe the opposite. Infertility is a significant problem now, and our work might potentially help make a lot of people happy.”

-- Nupur Shridhar B'11 is proud