An artificial blastocyst created from human stem cells.Credit: UT Southwestern
Four lab groups have almost simultaneously published research showing that it is possible to create structures which are nearly identical to human embryos.
According to Nature, “Two teams published their results in Nature on 17 March; last week, two other groups reported similar results on the bioRxiv preprint server that have not been peer reviewed. These experiments offer a window into a crucial time in human development, and an opportunity to better understand pregnancy loss and infertility without experimenting on human embryos.”
Most of what scientists know about the early development comes from studying human embryos up to 14 days – the legal limit in most countries. The research groups have created structures they call blastoids or iBlastoids which could bypass the need for stopping research at 14 days.
Two of the scientists involved in an Australia-based study explain in The Conversation that: “While iBlastoids and blastoids both seem to be structurally and functionally similar to real blastocysts, it is not yet clear exactly how closely they resemble true embryos formed by a sperm and an egg. While the models were shown to share gene patterns and respond in culture in ways characteristic of actual embryos, researchers also saw significant anomalies, such as unsynchronised growth and cells that are not usually present in an embryo.”
"I'm sure it makes anyone who is morally serious nervous when people start creating structures in a petri dish that are this close to being early human beings," Daniel Sulmasy, a bioethicist at Georgetown University, told NPR. "They're not quite there yet, and so that's good. But the more they press the envelope, the more nervous I think anybody would get that people are trying to sort of create human beings in a test tube."
These developments, linked to pressures from bioethicists to scrap the 14-day rule, suggest that a Second Great Stem Cell War is just over the horizon. The first began when scientists demanded around 2001 that they be allowed to experiment on human embryos but it subsided after 2007 with the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells. At the time, it seemed impossible to grow embryos in labs beyond 14 days. Now that it looks feasible, there will be another push to grow embryos in Petri dishes up to a new limit.
The Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher, a bioethicist with a doctorate from Oxford, was one of the first to comment on the news. In an op-ed in The Australian, he was scathing.
“Remember when embryonic stem-cells were going to cure almost anything, as long as enough restrictions on human embryo experimentation were removed, and enough government money was thrown at them? Two decades later, there are no such cures. Indeed, the majority of the licences granted went not to those institutions researching cures for disease or spinal cord injuries, as promised, but to the IVF industry that pulls in revenues of half a billion dollars each year in Australia alone,” he wrote.
“Some people evidently think Ethics is a place in England. Or that ethics are optional when results, profits or prizes are in view. Or that everything that can be done should be done and inevitably will be done.”
Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge
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