You know you are living in interesting times when one of the most significant scientific and technological breakthroughs of the year is also one of the most ethically questionable. Earlier this year, a team of scientists at the UK’s Cambridge University took a step closer to creating not a new weapon of mass destruction, but an artificial embryo.
Before anyone climbs on moral high horses or sounds the trumpets of celebration (I won’t say what my initial response was), it wasn’t a human artificial almost-embryo. According to reports, the team headed by Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz used mouse stem cells in their breakthrough discovery.
The most recent work by the scientists was built on the foundation of earlier research using 2 stem cells. The most recent experiment used 3 stem cell types.
3 turned out to be a lucky number for them, because the resulting structure began to gastrulate. Basically, this means the cells began organising themselves into a structure that leads to the development of an actual embryo. In an interview with Reuters, Zernicka-Goetz described gastrulation as the most important event to occur in the early stages of life.
She added that the team hopes its work will shed more light on one of the most mysterious aspects of the development of life. The results might help them understand why many pregnancies are lost during those early developmental stages.
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Of Mice and Men
Fascinated by the Cambridge team’s work, I did a little more digging. Turns out that they are not the only team working on artificial embryos. A team at the University of Michigan working on a similar project has been using human cells.
Their discovery was a bit of an accident. Hoping to find signs of rudimentary neural tissue, mechanical engineer Yue Shao grew human embryonic stem cells in soft gel. However, the cells did not behave quite the way he expected. When he saw the results, he had no idea was he was looking at, so what did he do? He asked Dr Google (I kid you not). Things became clearer when he saw photos of 10-day old embryos that had recently fused to uteruses. In an interview, Shao said he informed his colleagues, who were just as surprised as he was. He added that, from that moment, they decided to proceed with caution, saying that he has no plans of trying to grow a person in a petri dish.
But, Is It Right?
As thrilling as all this is, I couldn’t help but think of some of the ethical questions it poses. Society has been opposed to human experiments for ages (can anyone say Nazi Germany?), and there is growing opposition to animal experiments and vivisection around the world.
If the artificial embryos created in labs ever get beyond a week or 2 of development, they will start showing proper foetal characteristics, such as the capability of feeling pain. Is conducting experiments on them still OK? What if scientists are able to sustain an artificial embryo long enough for it to become a foetus; long enough to reach the stage of viability outside the womb (roughly 28 weeks)? It is at this stage that, in many places around the world, pregnancies are no longer allowed to be terminated. I don’t know, and, honestly, I’m glad it’s not a question I need to answer.
At the end of my mental gymnastics, I thought of my favourite movie – the Rocky Horror Picture Show. When Dr Frank-N-Furter discovered his beefcake creation Rocky had been intimate with visitor Janet, he said to Rocky, ‘Listen, I made you, and I can break you just as easily.’ All I can say is that I hope it never comes to that.