Father of in vitro fertilization weighs in on future of reproductive medicine

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by Regina Mobley, 13News Now

WVEC.com

Posted on October 24, 2013 at 5:13 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 25 at 11:02 AM

NORFOLK -- Reproductive medicine in America changed forever on December 28, 1981 when Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones announced the birth of Elizabeth Carr at Norfolk General Hospital.

Elizabeth was the nation's first, so-called "test tube baby." The birth was controversial at the time.  Some even called in vitro fertilization, the process by which an egg is fertilized by sperm outside the body, as immoral. 

When Dr. Georgeanna Jones died in 2005, the controversy had faded and the Joneses had become the "grandparents" to thousands of IVF babies.  

While Dr.Howard Jones is known as the co-founder of in vitro fertilization in America, he also played a major role in another historic, yet also controversial, advance in medicine.

At Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland in 1951,  Dr. Jones examined married mother of five Henrietta Lacks, who had complaints of cervical pain. Suspecting cervical cancer, Dr. Jones removed tissue from the cervix that was used for a biopsy. 

After 62 years, Dr. Jones says he still vividly remembers the examination. "It did not look like any cancer I had ever seen, and at that time I had seen maybe a thousand cancers of the cervix," said Jones.

The cancer diagnosis was confirmed, and within the year, the disease claimed the life of the 31-year old mother. 

But the specimen removed during the biopsy revealed something that had never been observed in medicine. For reasons that were not fully understood at the time, the Lacks' cells continued to grow in a culture. 

Over the years, the cell line known as HeLa, was grown and sold world-wide for bio-medical research. 

HeLa cells have been used for several medical advances, including the development of the polio vaccine, cloning and gene mapping. HeLa cells even made a trip to the moon to study how cells divide in zero gravity.

The Lacks story is the subject of journalist Rebecca Skloot's bestselling book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was published in 2010.  Skloot describes the medical breakthroughs that can be attributed to HeLa, but also writes that the Lacks' family was unaware that Henrietta's cells were being sold, and the family never received a dime from the medical profession.

In a recent interview, Dr. Jones denied claims that tissue samples were taken without the patient's permission, and said he was never involved in the duplication and sale of the HeLa cell line.

According to Skloot, a colleague of Jones was responsible for the initial duplication and distribution of the HeLa cell line.  

The case has raised ethical questions about the ownership of tissue once it is removed from the body.  While the issue is under debate, Jones says it's critical that the medical community have access to specimens that could hold the key to curing disease.

Dr. Jones is now 102 years old and says if his genome can provide clues to treating disease, then he is willing to share that information with the medical community. 

Dr. Jones says the Lacks' case is one example of how information inside microscopic cells can save lives. 

"It [HeLa] has become a very useful tool in solving many problems.  The one that everybody quotes, is that it was instrumental in the development of the polio vaccine," said Dr. Jones.

Decades after her death, the medical community now knows Henrietta Lacks' cancer was caused by the human papillomavirus and research with her cell line led to the development of the HPV vaccine. 

From his office at the Jones Institute of Reproductive Medicine at The Eastern Virginia Medical School, Dr. Jones recommended that parents vaccinate their teen girls and boys to protect them from the virus that contributed to the death of Henrietta Lacks. 

The baby Drs. Howard and Georgeanna Jones announced in 1981 is now 32 years old and Elizabeth Carr Comeau is literally making headlines in a different way - as a reporter for the Boston Globe. 

Before giving birth three years ago, Comeau shared her IVF journey with readers.  Comeau wrote, "If my story helps couples or families learn about in-vitro fertilization, then the loss of privacy is worthwhile. People who have fertility issues deserve to know they can have healthy, normal babies."

Dr. Jones now calls current IVF techniques inefficient and expensive because of the number of eggs that have to be fertilized to produce at least one healthy child.

While research is underway to streamline the process, Dr. Jones offered a glimpse into the possible future of reproductive medicine -somatic reproduction.

Highly controversial research is underway in which asexual reproduction takes place by the fission or budding of somatic cells. Dr Jones says this procedure is decades away. 

"I don't expect to be around when this happens, but I really think it might happen within 25 years.  I think the same argument will come up,[as the IVF controversy] but I think the only answer to that argument is to have it work, and say that you could have a normal child without the use of eggs and sperm," Jones said.

As for covering the cost of today's IVF procedure, Dr. Jones says it was a mistake to exclude IVF from the Affordable Care Act. "It should be part of health care coverage because it solves problems that cannot be solved in any other way," said Dr. Jones. 

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