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Aarathi Prasad

Aarathi PrasadDr Aarathi Prasad, born in 1975 in Trinidad and later moved with her family to London. She earned her doctorate degree in biology and worked in cancer genetics at the Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine in London. In 2005 she walked out of the lab and into the world of science policy and communication, working for, among other organizations, Sense About Science, a charity set up to promote evidence-based science in public discussion. Her interest in reproductive medicine arises from three things: an undergraduate research project studying a protein that gives mouse sperm the capacity to fertilize eggs; her time in Parliament working to get the human-animal chimera stem-cell bill passed; and the fact that she is a single mother and sometimes thinks that it would be fabulous to have another child without first having to find the right man. In 2009 she presented the controversial documentary Is It Better to be Mixed Race? on Channel 4 and wrote and presented the two-part BBC Radio 4 documentary The Quest for Virgin Birth. Prasad was previously a Volunteer Writer at BioNews, the Life Sciences Adviser to the British Council, and author of Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. She is a science writer and broadcaster, and has presented and written for programmes including the above mentioned Is It Better to be Mixed Race?, the Health and Biology episodes of Brave New World with Stephen Hawking, and the 4thought film Should We Raise Children in Mixed Marriages? on Channel 4, and The Quest for Virgin Birth on BBC Radio 4. She has written for publications including the Guardian and Telegraph newspapers, Prospect and Wired magazines, and Euroscientist, and she also has judged the Science and Natural History category in the Royal Television Society's Programme Awards. She has a PhD in Mammalian Cell Cycle Biology from Imperial College - London, and she has completed a postdoctoral project supported by Cancer Research UK, which used chemical genetics to identify early therapeutic targets in cancers. She was previously Public Liaison Officer at Sense About Science and Parliamentary Researcher for Evan Harris. Dr. Prasad's first book was entitled The End of Sex: The Quest for Reproduction without Men. Her second book came out in 2016 - In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine was published in May and was featured as BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week from May 23rd.

Aarathi PrasadDr. Prasad believes that a future involving reproduction without sex will soon be well within our grasp. In her new book, Like a Virgin: The Science of a Sexless Future, this scientist and presenter talks at great length about scientific reproductive advances that have already been used successfully on animals and could define the future of human reproduction. Prasad describes how artificial sperm or eggs can be created using stem cells and chromosomes to enable fertilisation. This same technique saw the birth of a baby mouse called Kaguya in 2004 which was conceived using synthetic sperm made from the genetic material of an egg from a young mouse to fertilise an egg from a mature mouse. According to an article in The Guardian, Prasad argues that the creation of the "ultimate solo parent" will work as a "great biological and social equaliser" by allowing infertile, same-sex couples and single individuals to conceive. Her book also draws on the construction of an artificial womb used in Australia to grow shark foetuses. If used with human embryos this could change the future of parenting by taking the onus away from women by allowing parents to share childcare duties or providing men with the capacity to have children without a woman. Prasad hopes that reproductive science will be allowed to develop to its full potential and believes that life is not a sacred entity, although she is mindful of ethical concerns developments could raise - such as the bond between mother and baby in the womb and religious beliefs. For Prasad it is not a question of whether these advances will be made, but a question of when. She points out to all those that are in doubt, to think back to a time when IVF treatment and test tube babies were but a distant scientific concept.

Aarathi PrasadDr. Prasad has just published her first book, Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex, a popular science title about the biology of sex and the future of reproduction. It was in the Autumn of 2009 that Aarathi presented Channel 4's controversial documentary Is It Better to be Mixed Race? and later on in that same year Aarathi wrote and presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary called The Quest for Virgin Birth. In 2005, Aarathi moved out of laboratory research after completing her PhD and post-doctoral research into the genetic mechanisms underlying the development of tumours. Over the last three years she has communicated science in several contexts: development research for television documentaries; interpreting research relevant to health policy at the House of Commons; and communicating the science behind topical issues such as genetically modified foods, chemicals and cosmetics, clinical trials and health screening to non-scientists including journalists, teachers and patients for the charity Sense About Science. Dr. Prasad has also chaired a parliamentary briefing on the regulation of DIY health tests and has spoken on the use of science in policy making at the 2007 Liberal Democrat Party political conference and the portrayal of science in the media at the 2008 Labour party conference. From artificial wombs to men and women being able to reproduce entirely alone, Aarathi Prasad says science is rewriting the rules of sex and human reproduction. What would that mean for our ideas of family and parenthood?

Aarathi Prasad"Having a child in a place that’s not in your body is not necessarily bad for bonding. These advances could challenge everything we know about family and the relationship between men and women. Their potential is summed up in the final paragraphs of her new book, Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex. There she describes the 'ultimate solo parent' of the future. This future woman can use her own stem cells and an artificial Y chromosome to produce healthy new eggs and sperm at any age, is capable of reproducing entirely alone by making one of her eggs behave like a pseudo-sperm that can be used to fertilise herself, and has no need to carry the embryo in her own body. Instead it gestates in an artificial womb, which acts as a highly evolved incubator. The same field of technology would enable gay couples to have children created from both their DNA, and make it just as easy for a man to become a single parent as a woman. Prasad says that this would be "the great biological and social equaliser" and adds that the question is not if it will happen - but a question of when. If people could grow embryos outside the body, it would change the life choices of women entirely. They would not have to worry about when to have children – due to this advance and eggs created from stem cells, conception would be possible at any age. Men and women could have an equal role in parenting, right from the moment of conception. Of all the current reproductive possibilities, it is this potential advance that could be most revolutionary – and perhaps the most troubling too.

Aarathi PrasadThe decision to write her book Like a Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex grew from her own desire to have children. She was brought up in Trinidad, then moved to London with her parents and brother, and dreamed of having a large family. In her mid-20s, while finishing a PhD in cancer genetics, she had a daughter named Tara, but her relationship with her daughters father ended during the pregnancy. By the time she was 30 her hopes for a big family were faltering. Because her mother had experienced menopause at an early age, she suspected she might develop it too.

"I remember waking up one Saturday morning, on a bed with my daughter in my mum's loft, thinking, well, if some animals can have babies without males, why can't humans? So many women are like me, in their 30s, we do want our careers - and we're looking for the right partner. And then you get older and it looks less likely to happen."

Prasad had studied male infertility and other aspects of developmental biology; she decided to find out more about her choices and what was going on at the cutting edge of reproductive science. Her book takes a broad, historical look at the notion of reproduction without sex, moving from ancient stories of virgin birth to a 16th century experiment involving semen being placed in a glass tube and buried in horse manure, in the hope it might grow into a small, transparent homunculus - which it didn't, by the way.

But the book is most extraordinary when it considers the future of reproduction without sex. Along with the artificial womb, the other possible advance Prasad finds most exciting is the potential to create healthy, new young eggs from our stem cells. There have been studies conducted on animals, she says, in which bone marrow from a female has been used to generate eggs.

Aarathi Prasad"You can also take bone marrow from men, to generate sperm, and you can generate eggs from men too, which is quite interesting. It's not magic," she adds. "It's because men have an X and a Y chromosome, while women, having two X chromosomes, are more limited in this respect. However, an embryo could still be created that mixed the DNA of two females, a process that has been tried successfully in mice. In 2004, Kaguya the mouse was born without a father. She was created by 'constructing an egg out of material from one mature egg, and one immature egg,' Prasad writes. "Manipulation of DNA essentially allowed the scientists to use an egg's chromosomes as if they had come from a sperm."

"This area of technology would allow a woman to procreate alone too, using two of her own eggs, an idea Prasad laughs off as megalomaniacal when discussed initially. "I wouldn't see a woman creating a baby out of herself. I mean, maybe they would. Maybe Lady Gaga would, some maverick."

The child wouldn't be a clone, she notes, "because every time you create an egg there's a shuffling of the DNA, which is why siblings don't tend to look the same."

"But surely for people who want to reproduce and don't have a partner, going it alone might not be prompted by narcissism – more by their confidence in their own DNA and family medical history, versus that of an unknown donor?

"I can see that happening," says Prasad, "and it might sound weird, but is it? I think the real question is, is the baby going to be healthy? If the answer to that is yes, and the mother is able to look after it, then who are we to say?"

Aarathi PrasadDr. Prasad has a PhD in molecular genetics from Imperial College London, and subsequently worked on a Cancer Research UK-funded post-doctoral project using chemical genetics to identify early therapeutic targets in cancers.

She was a recipient of the Wellcome Trust Mentoring Award for Emerging Talent, and has been a science advisor to the British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations, where she developed international research collaborations and policy, and public engagement in science.

She has also worked in science policy in areas including the passage in the UK Parliament of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. She is currently based at University College London.

Dr. Prasad's writing has appeared in publications including Prospect Magazine, The Guardian, The Telegraph, Vogue India and Wired UK.

She has written and presented TV and radio programmes, including Rewinding the Menopause and Quest for Virgin Birth on BBC Radio 4, Channel 4’s controversial Is It Better to Be Mixed Race?, Brave New World with Stephen Hawking for Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel, and The Science of the Future with Stephen Hawking for the Discovery Channel and National Geographic.

Dr. Prasad has also served as a judge on the Royal Television Society’s Science and Natural History awards panel.

Aarathi PrasadDr. Prasad's first book, Like A Virgin: How Science is Redesigning the Rules of Sex, published in 2012, has been translated into Dutch, Bulgarian, and Italian.

Her second book, In the Bonesetter’s Waiting Room: Travels Through Indian Medicine, published in May of 2016, was featured as the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week starting on May 23rd 2016. Below are some reviews of Dr. Aarathi Prasad's books:

"Think you know the birds and the bees? Prasad's whip-smart, eye-popping book takes us on a journey into the heart of gender and reproduction—a journey whose strange history is matched only by its unexpected future."
- David Eagleman, Neuroscientist, Author of Incognito and Sum

"Aarathi Prasad has travelled far into the mysterious land of human and animal conception and come back with extraordinary stories of chimaeras and parthenogens, of cannibal sharks in the womb, of pseudosperm and the prospect of birth without pregnancy. A fascinating book."
- Matt Ridley, bestselling author of The Red Queen

"A hugely successful braid of reproductive biology, history of science, and politics, this is science writing that will keep you up past your bedtime."
- New Scientist

"Prasad's first book is a fascinating, topical and hugely readable investigation..."
- Metro

"Fiery and provocative..."
- Sunday Times

"Reading the book is like watching one of those well-produced documentaries on Discovery channel. Only, Prasad has none of the benefits of the television medium, not those 3D ultrasound incursions into the womb, nor the stunning graphics. But she has her super skill — her felicity with words, the ability to breathe life into them outside labs…If you want to read just one book on sex and conception, let it be this."
- The Hindu

"...fertility is, quite simply, a complex process that involves more than you might imagine. Regardless, Prasad's humorous and anecdote-laden approach sweeps the reader along."
- BBC Focus

"Her book, Like A Virgin, is exploring a fundamentally serious theme, and one at the heart of Western liberal thinking."
- Daily Mail

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Dr. Aarathi Prasad


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Bonesetters Waiting Room

In the Bonesetter's Waiting Room:
Travels Through Indian Medicine

BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week India defies definition, and the story of medicine in India is similarly rich and complex: shaped by unique challenges and opportunities, uniting cutting-edge technological developments with ancient cultural traditions, fuelled by political changes which transformed the lives of millions and moulded by the energy of forceful individuals. Here, Aarathi Prasad investigates how Indian medicine came to be the way it is. Her travels will take her to bonesetter clinics in Jaipur and Hyderabad and the waiting-rooms of Bollywood's best plastic surgeons, and introduce her to traditional healers as well as the world-beating heart surgeon who is revolutionising treatment of the poor around the globe.

Like a Virgin

LIKE A VIRGIN
Exploring the Frontiers of Conception

Sexual evolution is a slippery business. Like all mammals, we humans seem to have been left no choice in the matter: even though it is costly, inefficient and dangerous, if we want to reproduce we simply have to have sex. Yet most human cultures tell the tale of a maiden who gives birth untouched by a man; and in the wild there are plenty of creatures – such as turkeys, komodo dragons, sharks and the ‘Jesus Christ’ lizard (which walks on water, too) – that take various approaches to reproducing without sex.

In LIKE A VIRGIN, the biology writer Aarathi Prasad discusses how reproduction without sex is achieved in animals and explores why evolution hasn’t made it an option for humans – yet. In doing so, she provides a quirky, entertaining and perceptive overview of the mysteries of evolutionary biology, sex and reproduction – past, present and future.

It’s a remarkable story that ranges across Greek mythology, natural history, agriculture, conservation and medicine; takes in some of the most exciting areas of developmental genetics and molecular biology that other popular science books largely ignore; and is packed full of a cast of amazing characters, be they obscure animals or eccentric scientists such as the respected geneticist Dr Helen Spurway who in the UK in the 1950s unwittingly sparked a nationwide search for a virgin mother.

There is now a plethora of strategies being developed in reproductive medicine that could ultimately keep our species going in a world of embellished sex: the creation of artificial eggs and sperm from bone marrow, labs-on-chips on which eggs are fertilized, silicone wombs and artificial wombs (where fetuses can spend their full nine months), and even research to prepare us for reproduction in space. What’s more, we are finally beginning to understand what genetic modifications are needed to allow for the creation of women who could have babies without having sex. Now that we have the competent hand of science in our lives, will girls still need men?

Publisher: Oneworld (UK/US)
Pub Date: 16 August 2012
Status: Draft manuscript
Length: 288 pages


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