Artificial Human Embryos Could Spark a Biological Revolution
Artificial human embryos could soon be on the horizon, but what will it mean? Well, arguably the potential of such a breakthrough could herald a new biological revolution.
According to New Scientist, discoveries like this are bringing us closer to solving some of the most intractable problems in reproductive biology and medicine. One, in particular, forces us to rethink what it means to reproduce and make a baby.
The possibility snuck up on mechanical engineer, Yue Shao when he was experimenting on some cells. He was looking at ways of getting cells to form more organised three-dimensional structures by growing them in scaffolds of soft gel. However, it wasn’t until he noticed that the cells seemed to change much faster than expected, that he started to suspect something else was going on.
After a few days passed he saw that they had arranged themselves pretty rapidly into a lopsided circle. Shao did some digging and landed on a website called The Virtual Human Embryo. It was here that he looked at some microscope photos of ten-day-old human embryos shortly after implantation, fused to the uterine wall. There was the beginning of the amniotic sac, and inside it, the embryonic disc, or future body. The results matched, and it very much looked like he had made a real human embryo from stem cells.
Despite this discovery being made at the end of last year, its some of the most recent research indicating a strong chance that life can be recreated in the lab. The possibilities of what can be done with such work are endless, with a large majority pointing at breaking open the black box of early pregnancy, a poorly understood and fragile time at which most miscarriages happen and fertility treatments fail.
However, as I’m sure you can suspect research on real humans is dogged by abortion policies, restricted funding laws, and limited to supplies from IVF clinics. But, by growing embryoids instead, scientists see a way around such limits.
Scientists at Michigan have plans to manufacture embryoids by the hundreds. “This is a hot new frontier in both science and bioethics. And it seems likely to remain contested for the coming years,” claimed Jonathan Kimmelman, a member of the bioethics unit at McGill University, in Montreal, and a leader of an international organisation of stem-cell scientists.
Importantly so, Shao has recognised the ethical barriers associated with such work, despite continuing his training at MIT. “Very early on in our research, we started to pay attention to why we are doing this?” he said. “Is it really necessary? We decided yes, we are trying to grow a structure similar to part of the human early embryo that is hard to otherwise to study. But we are not going to generate a complete human embryo. I can’t just consider my feelings. I have to think about society.”
It doesn’t seem that everyone harbours this same view, and instead are determined to see just how far the science leads, up to and including forging the first complete human embryo from stem cells. This is the case of Ali Brivanlou, an embryologist who leads a lab at Rockefeller University, in New York City. “My goal is to maximise the modeling, in vitro, of human development,” he noted. “Therefore, we would like to be as accurate as possible and as complete as possible.”
Although today’s embryoids don’t appear to be covered current legal restrictions, they soon might be if scientists make them realistic enough.
For now, it would seem that there is still a lot to consider, as well as a lot to still achieve. But, there is no denying that the potential possibility would open up a new door of discovery in the science world.