The Telegraph is reporting on the experiment which is being hailed as a “breakthrough” and “masterpiece” in bioengineering because it could eventually allow scientists to create artificial human embryos in a lab without the need for an egg or sperm.
The embryos were created using genetically engineered stem cells coupled with extra-embryonic trophoblast stem cells (TSCs) which form the placenta in a normal pregnancy. Previously, scientific attempts to grow embryos using only one kind of stem cell proved unsuccessful because the cells wouldn’t assemble into their correct positions. However, addition of the placental stem cells enabled the types of cells to “talk” to each other and tell each other where to go.
“Together they eventually melded together to form an embryonic structure, with two distinct clusters of cells at each end, and a cavity in the middle in which the embryo would continue to develop,” the Telegraph reports. “The embryo would not grow into a mouse because it lacks the stem cells which make a yolk sack.”
Scientists say this development will help researchers study the very early states of human life to help them understand why so many pregnancies fail. It will also enable them to carry out experiments on human embryos without have to rely on “leftover” embryos from IVF treatments which are in short supply and must be destroyed after 14 days in the UK. Being able to create unlimited numbers of artificial embryos could speed up research.
“We think that it will be possible to mimic a lot of the developmental events occurring before 14 days using human stem cells using a similar approach to our technique using mouse stem cells," said Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz from the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience at Cambridge, who led the research.
"We are very optimistic that this will allow us to study key events of this critical stage of human development without actually having to work on (IVF) embryos. Knowing how development normally occurs will allow us to understand why it so often goes wrong."
Needless to say, this research raises important ethical questions about the sanctity of human life and whether it should be created in a lab and then used for experimentation.
Dr David King, director of the watchdog group, Human Genetics Alert, told the Telegraph: "What concerns me about the possibility of artificial embryos is that this may become a route to creating GM [genetically modified] or even cloned babies.
"Until there is an enforceable global ban on those possibilities, as we saw with mitochondrial transfer, this kind of research risks doing the scientific groundwork for entrepreneurs, who will use the technologies in countries with no regulation."
Prof James Adjaye, Chair of Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine, Heinrich Heine University, in Germany, agrees and said: “A regulatory body will ultimately decide on whether human stem cell embryos can be generated and for how long they can be left in the petri dish to develop further. Of course, there should be an international dialogue on the regulation of such experiments.”
Although the Church has not made any statement on this particular announcement, its position on the inviolability of human life is a fundamental teaching that is articulated in many documents, such as in Donum Vitae and Dignitas Personae.
The research was published in the journal Science and was funded by the Wellcome Trust and the European Research Council.
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