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Dawn Levy, News Service (650) 725-1944


Djerassi's science-in-fiction explores sex and reproduction

On Oct. 15, 1951, Carl Djerassi led a small team of Syntex researchers in Mexico City in the first synthesis of a steroid oral contraceptive, an achievement that earned him the 1973 National Medal of Science. Now, as the Pill nears age 50, the Stanford chemist turns his gaze from the achievement that spawned the sexual revolution and casts a wary eye toward futuristic technologies that promise a reproductive revolution.

"With continuous improvements in assisted reproductive technologies, we are seeing a gradual separation of sex and fertilization, with sex taking place 'in bed' and fertilization under the microscope," Djerassi told an audience Feb. 19 at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. "This separation is shifting the balance of reproductive power into the domain of women."

In a talk titled "Contraception vs. Conception A Millennial Prognosis," Djerassi discussed reproductive options for women who delay childbearing until their late 30s or

early 40s. By the time a woman reaches age 35, 90 percent of her eggs are gone. Chances of conception also drop if the father of the child-to-be has a low sperm count. Fertilization via normal intercourse requires tens of millions of sperm, so even a man ejaculating 3 million sperm may be functionally infertile.

Whereas in vitro fertilization has been used since 1977 to expose a woman's egg to millions of sperm under the microscope, a 1992 technique addresses sex and the single sperm. Practitioners of the technique, called intracytoplasmic sperm injection (ICSI) and first developed in Belgium, inject a single sperm into an egg to force its fertilization. Djerassi called ICSI "arguably the most important development in reproductive biology during the past 10 years."

In the future, Djerassi says, young women may have their eggs removed and stored, undergo voluntary sterilization to enjoy sex without fear of pregnancy, and have their eggs thawed out when they are ready for motherhood.

Sounds like science fiction? It's not, Djerassi says. Assisted reproductive technologies like ICSI are raising thorny regulatory issues. For now, the contraceptive industry is the domain of small businesses. "These are largely high-tech (reproductively speaking) mom and pop shops garage companies if you will that are not subject to regulatory controls," Djerassi said. "They don't sell drugs. They sell the application of technologies. So they're willing to take risks that a pharmaceutical company wouldn't be willing to take."

And of course there are ethical dilemmas: Is donor consent required for the single sperm required for the ICSI procedure? Will the technology open the door for individuals to exercise their own personal form of eugenics? How will technology affect male-female relations?

"In the long run, these technologies open up the roles of both men and women," said Djerassi, who described nontraditional family units made possible by assisted reproduction. Two women may want to be parents of a child, for instance. "In the short term, however, these technologies are threatening to both men and women."

Historically, men have initiated sex and been in charge of reproduction. Now, with technology reducing the measure of a man to his seed, "the pendulum of power that swings back and forth between Amazons and harem keepers two extremes is swinging toward female power," Djerassi said. "Power rests on equality of social function. But before we reach that I think we're going to go through a lot of turmoil."

This was the subject of a Feb. 11 symposium called "Sex Wars" in which he was one of the principal speakers at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.

Conception involves extremely individual decisions, he said. "But these should be decisions made by informed individuals."

In recent years, Djerassi has taken a somewhat sneaky approach to informing the public about science, including assisted reproductive technologies. Writing novels and plays in a genre he calls "science-in-fiction" not to be confused with the often unrealistic portrayal of science and scientists in science fiction Djerassi has been doing his part to bridge the gap between scientific and nonscientific cultures posited by C.P. Snow.

"I want to use the stage for teaching, smuggling in basic science concepts to which a scientific or even antiscientific audience would otherwise refuse to pay attention," Djerassi said. "I take the information and say, 'Let me tell you a story.'"

At the AAAS talk, Djerassi read an excerpt from his first science-in-fiction play, An Immaculate Misconception, which premiered in August 1998 in abbreviated form at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The full version opened in 1999 in London, San Francisco and Vienna, and the BBC is about to record a radio adaptation for broadcast on its world service. The play, which dramatizes the ethical implications of ICSI to a nonscientific, theater-going public, features film footage demonstrating the ICSI technique. Imperial College Press of London will release An Immaculate Misconception in spring, and a German translation is forthcoming later this month.

How successful is Djerassi's scientific smuggling? His science-in-fiction novels now number five: Cantor's Dilemma, The Bourbaki Gambit, Menachem's Seed, NO, and Marx, Deceased. His most recent science-in-fiction play, Oxygen (by Djerassi and Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann), was excerpted by New Scientist magazine in October 1999. A recent staged reading of the play by Djerassi and Hoffmann at the Tricycle Theatre in London had such an overflowing audience that it attracted the attention of the fire marshal.

Djerassi also uses science-in-fiction to teach biomedical ethics at Stanford University Medical School. Djerassi designed a science-in-fiction exercise to assure anonymity in exploring issues that are frequently not raised in an academic environment due to embarrassment or fear of retribution. Using a Japanese literary form called a renga linked verse that is composed by two or more poets in alternating

sequence he asked 14 graduate students to compose a collaborative short story dealing with an ethical dilemma. Nature published the "science renga" the first piece of fiction the journal had ever published on June 11, 1998. But who scored the coveted first-author position? Djerassi listed his 14 students alphabetically but made up a 15th,

listed in the footnotes as "deceased": Alfred N. Aldston, Jr. an anagram for Leland

Stanford, Jr., the namesake of Stanford University. " I felt it appropriate to make him

the senior author because he was dead and he made it possible for so many people to publish," Djerassi said.


By Dawn Levy

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