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Embryo Research Raises Ethics Concerns

Controversy is no stranger to science. Religious morality versus the advancement of science has long been a hotly debated issue. This issue has once again been raised with recent studies on in vitro embryo research.

New research from Rockefeller University and Cambridge University shows, for the first time, the mystery of human development, molecular and cellular, 14 days after fertilization. For the first time, the process of implantation was replicated in a laboratory instead of in the uterus. These findings may help with determining why miscarriages occur and why failures occur in in vitro fertilization.

Ali Brivanlou, professor and head of the Laboratory of Stem Cell Biology and Molecular Embryology at Rockefeller University says,

This portion of human development is a complete black box.

Recent study co-author Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz and colleagues at the University of Cambridge, used a similar process, first using mice. Using mice embryos, the team mimicked womb implantation in a Petri dish. The embryos grew and organized their cells past the one-week mark, equivalent to the time when body shape is determined in humans, the 14-day rule.

Eggs being fertilized in a laboratory (Washington Post/Brgstock)

Eggs being fertilized in a laboratory (Washington Post/Brgstock)

Brivanlou says,

With this work, we can really appreciate the differences between human and mouse, and across all mammals. Because of the variations between species, what we learn in model systems is not necessarily relevant to our own development, and these results provide crucial information we couldn’t learn elsewhere. We had seen self-organization using this system in the mouse embryo, and also in human embryonic stem cells, but we did not anticipate we’d see self-organization in the context of a whole human embryo. Amazingly, at least up to the first 12 days, development occurred normally in our system in the complete absence of maternal input.

The study was halted on day-14 of fertilization due to international guidelines, the 14-day embryo rule. Day 14 was established as the cut-off time for embryo research because on day-15, the “primitive streak” occurs. This is the time when the human body begins to take shape, a time when an embryo becomes an “individual” in the lab. The team suggests that, to further research, the 14-day rule be revisited.

Human embryo 12-days after fertilization in vitro, from the recent study.

Human embryo 12-days after fertilization in vitro, from the recent study.

This rule has been controversial, in that many in the scientific community contend that valuable scientific research is being halted and hindered by it. It is contended that valuable research into the cause of miscarriage, birth defects, disease and other issues that could aid humankind hinges on the need to extend embryo research beyond the 14-day rule.

Zernicka-Goetz says,

Longer cultures could provide absolutely critical information for basic human biology. But this of would of course raise questions of where we should put the next limit.

In a statement given to the nonprofit Genetic News Expert Service Center for Law and Biosciences at Stanford, Director Henry Greely (not involved in the recent study) says,

(If) we do not use a 14-day rule, what limit will we use? Twelve weeks or so, as in many European abortion laws? Viability (at around 23 weeks), as in U.S. abortion law? Human development is a seamless process, but ultimately lines need to be drawn even when – especially when – they do not naturally exist.

Peter Donovan, a professor of biological chemistry and developmental biology at the University of California (not part of the recent study) states,

Perhaps we could begin to understand the consequences of fetal alcohol syndrome, study the potential causes of autism and find out why some environmental chemicals can affect development. Perhaps we might, for example, be more able to more quickly understand what the Zika virus does to embryos to cause major problems with brain development. There could be major benefits for society, but if the 14-day line is crossed then society has to fully understand the science and come to an informed decision about the use of technology.

The scientific community will be addressing this issue. Does scientific research that benefits the common good override personal ethics and religious conviction? This brings up the age-old question of, when does life really begin? When is a person a person?

There is, unfortunately, no easy answer.