By People Staff
June 16, 1975 12:00 PM

If a TV series were to be based on the exploits of Ph.D.-rancher Ronald Ericsson (who would probably be the first to suggest the idea), it might be called “Cowboy in the Lab.” Some of Dr. Ericsson’s skeptical colleagues in his field of reproductive physiology would undoubtedly prefer “Maverick.”

A small-town boy from South Dakota, the 39-year-old scientist set off a heated debate in 1973 when he published a report in the prestigious British scientific journal Nature. It described a method of increasing the percentage of healthy spermatozoa possessing the Y(or male-producing) chromosome. Dr. Ericsson’s findings had profound implications, for they meant that parents who wanted boy babies might substantially increase their chances by artificial insemination with the Y-rich sperm. Ericsson’s technique also cleaned up the semen—getting rid of “all the garbage, dead sperm and other debris”—and made it more potent, thus providing possible help for the clinically infertile male.

Ericsson conducted his research in the Berlin laboratories of the Schering, A.G. pharmaceutical company. He separated out the sperm from donated human semen in a centrifuge and placed it in an albumin solution. According to Ericsson, the thinner, faster-swimming Y-bearing sperm penetrated the albumin more quickly, while most of the slower X-(or female chromosome) bearing sperm were left at the top. The two kinds of sperm could then be separated. With his predilection for range language, Ericsson says the process is like “cutting out cattle at the gate.” Ericsson then used a staining system to positively identify the cleaned-up and potent Y-bearing sperm.

Other scientists, however, have not been very successful in duplicating, and thus verifying, Ericsson’s work. Two recent rebuttals published in Nature were especially critical of Ericsson’s chromosome identification techniques. Another experimenter in the field, Dr. Alun Roberts, a biophysicist at St. Guy’s Hospital in London, says, “We did not get the same results. There are often small imperfections that make the sperm look like Y-sperm. If you are looking for Y-sperm, you often see it.” Nonetheless, Dr. Roberts is careful to say, “With the kind of research Ericsson is doing, the benefits outweigh the difficulties.”

Undaunted by his critics and the “indecision” of big pharmaceutical firms to commercialize his discovery, Ericsson has formed his own company in Sausalito, Calif. Clinical tests of his technique are already underway in London and Switzerland and soon will start in San Francisco and Chicago. Meanwhile he continues research at the University of California at Berkeley and at Cambridge in England. His company is called “Gametrics” (after “gamete,” a reproductive cell) which has led some confused citizens to think the name was pronounced Game-tricks and that the firm specialized in party ideas. Gametrics also markets a rodenticide called “Epicbloc,” which Ericsson originally developed as a birth control pill for male animals while he headed the male anti-fertility program at Upjohn’s Kalamazoo labs in the 1960s. It turned out to act as a poison and sterilant on rats only.

“If I’m successful with Gametrics,” says Ericsson, who himself has no doubts, “we eventually will be able to offer sperm-cleaning kits to physicians, like the blood-type or pregnancy kits now sold to hospitals.”

Meanwhile Ericsson sees even swifter potential in sex preselection with livestock—a subject which has intrigued him since his youthful rodeo-riding days. An Eagle Scout who spent his youthful summers tending cattle on his grandparents’ ranch, Ericsson went on to major in animal science at Colorado State University, where he met and married wife Jean, 38 (they have two children: Julia, 17, and Scott, 15). He received his Ph.D. in the Physiology of Reproduction at the University of Kentucky. With a cowboy’s spirit, Ericsson has continually sought greener pastures in his professional life. In addition to his stints at Upjohn and Schering, he most recently spent 10 months in Iran, where he set up a human fertility research center. Ericsson also maintains his cowboy ties by part ownership of two ranches in Wyoming.

“I’m very aware of the social impact of my work,” declares Ericsson, who allows that the furor it stirs up is “kind of fun. Successful scientists have egos like bulging balloons,” he says. “They may be pathetic on the dance floor, lousy speakers, can’t write worth a damn. But they are confident in research. They don’t feel they are wrong.” Ericsson adds, “It never crossed my mind I’d ever fail. That was not part of my vocabulary.” Ericsson insists that he is not motivated by altruism or any missionary zeal. “I honestly believe the world needs help,” he says, “but getting a profit from that help is not a divergent idea.”