Embryoids Spark Moral Debate
Recent scientific developments involving human embryos have prompted moral debates.
Scientists have been working on developing a way for embryos to survive outside the womb for longer periods of time. (Provided/ Pixabay.com).
It has been believed for decades that an embryo cannot live outside the womb for more than a week, but Ali Brivanlou, a scientist at the Rockefeller University in New York, has discovered how to keep an embryo alive for longer.
Brivanlou, along with a lab in Great Britain, announced last year in the journals Nature and Nature Cell Biology that they can now keep human embryos alive for up to two weeks.
According to an interview with NPR, this news has sparked an international debate on the long-standing convention that prohibits studying human embryos after they have reached two weeks of development.
Brivanlou does not believe these “embryoids” are capable of developing into fully formed embryos, but it has stirred the debate about if embryoids should fall under the 14-day rule.
Brivanlou says he welcomes the debates but hopes a decision can be reached so he can continue his work and answer some fundamental questions.
“If I can provide a glimpse of, ‘Where did we come from? What happened to us, for us to get here?’ I think that, to me, is a strong enough rationale to continue pushing this,” he said.
Most women are unaware they are pregnant at the two-week mark, so these embryoids allow scientists to study a crucial developing stage that until now has been hidden away in the womb.
The scientists in Brivanlou’s lab believe that studying embryos at the two-week stage and later could lead to several medical advances, such as ways to stop miscarriages, treat infertility and prevent birth defects.
“The only way to understand what goes wrong is to understand what happens normally, or as normally as we can, so we can prevent all of this,” Brivanlou said.
However, due to the rule, Brivanlou is only keeping them alive for 14 days.
“The decision about pulling the plug was probably the toughest decision I’ve made in my scientific career,” he said. “It was sad for me.”
The rule was developed to avoid too many ethical questions about experimentation on human embryos. Two weeks is about the time that a central nervous system begins to form in an embryo and is known as the “primitive streak.” This is also around the time that an embryo can no longer split into twins.
According to the decades-old rule, this is when the embryo becomes a “unique individual.” However, this rule was made before embryos could be grown in a lab beyond two weeks.
Scientists in the international community are currently debating the issue. The 14-day rule is law in Great Britain and other countries and has been incorporated into widely-followed guidelines in the U.S.
Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, believes that the rule should be reconsidered. It would allow for more research to be done on embryos that have been donated by couples who have finished infertility treatment and are going to be destroyed anyways.
“Given that it has to be destroyed, some would argue that it’s best to get as much information as possible scientifically from it before you destroy it,” Hyun said.
There are others who find it immoral to use human embryos at any stage for research and argue that lifting the 14-day rule would only make things worse.
Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a Georgetown University bioethicist said, “Pushing it beyond 14 days only aggravates what is the primary problem, which is using human life in its earliest stages solely for experimental purposes.”
The idea of extending the 14-day rule makes many people uncomfortable, especially if there is not another clear stopping point.
Hank Greely, a Stanford University bioethicist, worries that going beyond 14 days “really draws into question whether we’re using humans or things that are well along the path to humans purely as guinea pigs and purely as experimental animals.”