Roger Gosden

Roger Gosden McGill University

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McGill Reporter
March 23, 2000 - Volume 32 Number 13
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Roger Gosden

| This professor, we know you've heard of.

Not that Roger Gosden entirely enjoyed being a media darling last fall, just as he was arriving at the University to take up his position as the research director of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology's research divisions.

PHOTO: OWEN EGAN

"It's not a pleasant experience when your house is surrounded by reporters and you have to face 50 journalists when you open the door," says Gosden.

It's one of the things he doesn't miss about his native Britain. "The United Kingdom is home to some of the best newspapers in the world and also to some of the worst newspapers in the world."

The media coverage related, of course, to the role Gosden played in shepherding one of the biggest science stories of last year: ovarian grafts.

Gosden's animal studies paved the way for a successful operation on a 29-year-old woman in which cryogenically preserved ovarian tissue was used to reverse surgical menopause. Although Gosden stressed that the research was aimed at preserving fertility in young women facing sterilizing cancer treatments or other causes of premature menopause, many pundits huffed that Gosden's work was an attack on menopause itself. What's wrong with a woman growing old gracefully, charged some.

"The media tend to go to town on any new development in this field, no matter how speculative," says Gosden. "The Frankenstein image looms quite large sometimes.

"This is one of our problems. From one very specific goal that I think everyone probably approves of, it gets extrapolated into a much wider societal question."

And, in the resulting din, the voices of scientists tend to get drowned out.

Which is one of the reasons why Roger Gosden the scientist is also Roger Gosden the author.

"The only way to get doctors' and scientists' points of view across is to actually write the thing yourself," says Gosden.

The result was last year's Designing Babies: The Brave New World of Reproductive Technology, an acclaimed work that made The Ottawa Citizen's list of suggested books to buy for Christmas. The Toronto Star described it as "a valuable book... because it tries to ask some of the key questions [about reproductive medicine] and suggest ways they might be addressed."

For Gosden, who did his post-doc in the lab of test-tube-baby pioneer Robert Edwards, the bottom line is clear. If something can be done to allow people who ache to become parents, become parents, it should, at the very least, receive serious consideration. And in any proposed intervention using reproductive technology, the interests of the child-to-be should come first.

What he would like to see is an informed, calm examination of what reproductive medicine has to offer. He is no fan of reckless science. But he also has little patience for those who mistrust science completely.

In Europe, Gosden says, there has been the disquieting rise of "eco-warriors opposed to the spread of science," people who have destroyed experimental crops under study, for instance.

With biotechnology, says Gosden, if we don't take careful steps to consider what the technology might offer us, "we might be setting ourselves up at a tremendous disadvantage as a species," preventing the discovery of new ways of creating resilient and nutritious foods.

Also worrying is the notion that research involving experimental crops will go on anyway; it will just move "to other countries where the regulations are more lax."

Gosden says that a reproductive technology bill is likely to be introduced in the House of Commons. He supports the idea.

"It could give people confidence" in the whole area of reproductive medicine by "curbing some of the more extreme technologies," such as cloning.

Clinics that specialize in reproductive medicine are carefully licensed in the U.K., points out Gosden, as is research in the area. He backs that approach.

What Gosden hopes to see Canada avoid is "a situation that is so regulated, it puts the country at a disadvantage" in terms of services that can be provided to couples and in terms of the country's scientific progress. He is equally dismissive of "the laissez faire policy in the U.S. where virtually anything can happen."

A belief that Britain is becoming increasingly anti-science was one of the factors that motivated Gosden to come to McGill. Another was the University's strength in genetics and developmental biology.

Gosden has plenty of ideas for the future.

"One area I want to focus on is preventive approaches to reproductive health. I don't think there's been enough attention to that. What are the things that harm or help fertility? How can we conserve fertility?"

Gosden will also be spending a lot of time thinking about eggs. "It's arguably the most important cell in the whole body — we all start from eggs." He wants to know more about that almost magical process — especially about situations where things go wrong. "When an error occurs in the egg, every cell is likely to be affected by it."

The egg is also "the rarest cell in the body — women might produce 400 in a lifetime." That's "a limiting factor" for women who want to have a child. Men are, by comparison, veritable sperm factories.

Gosden is considering "growing eggs in-vitro."

If he succeeds, he could revolutionize the process of in-vitro fertilization. IVF requires women to receive hormone treatments that spur the production of eggs which are surgically removed. Because the success rate for IVF is, at best, around 30 percent, many women face the unpleasant prospect of facing the process more than once.

Gosden's idea would involve one surgical removal of a portion of ovary containing hundreds of unripened eggs. Once an egg matures and is fertilized, it would be placed back in the womb, while other eggs could be frozen and stored for the future. No repeated hormone treatments and no additional egg extractions.

"The result would be cheaper and less stressful," says Gosden, cautioning that a lot of questions need to be answered before it becomes a workable strategy.

"For instance, what are the factors required for eggs to grow outside the ovary?"

If successfully designed, Gosden thinks such a process would have other payoffs such as preserving endangered species.

And Gosden the scientist will again make way for Gosden the author on this subject — his next book will likely explore the history and science surrounding the human egg.

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