Dangerous sperm

How do you prevent a sperm donor with an undetected genetic disease from passing it on to lots of kids?

Published June 12, 2006 11:22PM (EDT)

We've heard of the sisterhood of sperm -- as in the groups of women who rally around a single popular sperm donor. But here's another consequence of men who father lots and lots of children; they may be spreading genetic defects, according to an alarming article last week in the New York Times' Science section.

It tells the story of donor F827, who seemed healthy when he gave enough sperm to a Michigan bank in the 1990s to lead to the births of 11 children. However, five of those offspring inherited a blood disease that makes them prone to leukemia and requires them to get daily costly shots. They, in turn, have a 50 percent chance of passing on the disease to their kids.

Writer Denise Grady questions whether the case, which was documented in last month's Journal of Pediatrics, should serve as a warning that sperm donors should be limited as to the number of children they can produce. That way, it would be easier to track who got sick. Or sperm centers could better monitor donors' offspring. However, secrecy laws, which are intended to protect donors, make it difficult to identify sick children and control the reproduction of faulty genes.

Anyone who carries dangerous genes in the general population unknowingly risks passing them on to their kids. And Grady makes the point that sperm banks can't test for every imaginable mutation; some 30,000 births a year are estimated to come from sperm donors. The only way centers learned of this cluster was because the disorder, called congenital neutropenia, is so rare that it affects only one in 5 million people. So when four families with affected kids visited a certain specialist, he became suspicious. The mothers were tested, but none were carriers of the gene.

Was this case simply a fluke, or is this another indication of the need to better regulate the fertility industry?

By Sarah Elizabeth Richards

Sarah Elizabeth Richards is a journalist based in New York. She can be reached at sarah@saraherichards.com.

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