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Scientists Double Life Expectancy of Embryos in Labs, Raising Concerns

Imaging a human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues - day 10 (left) and day 11 (right).  (Image:  Zernick-Goetz lab, University of Cambridge)
Imaging a human embryo in the absence of maternal tissues - day 10 (left) and day 11 (right). (Image: Zernick-Goetz lab, University of Cambridge)

Scientists from the U.K. and U.S have now developed a new technique that enables a human embryo to live outside the womb far longer than before. However, any future experiments are sure to be fraught with ethical issues.

For the first time ever, researchers have grown human embryos outside of the uterus for 13 days, which is a significant improvement from the previous record of nine days. This development would give us a better understanding into the little understood stages of human ontogenesis.

This accomplishment, however, has put research that involves in vitro human embryos on a “collision course” with international regulations that has a 14-day limit on laboratory studies of embryos.

For decades now, scientists have been able to make and study human embryos in their labs; however, keeping them alive outside a woman’s womb for more than about a week has proven difficult — until now.

The two leading labs created a chemical environment in which the embryo is tricked into thinking it is in a womb while it remained in a petri dish.

The embryos thrived until day 13, and then the scientists were forced to terminate to avoid breaching the international regulations, as both the U.S. and the U.K. forbid scientific experiments on human fetuses over two weeks old.

Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge, and who led the U.K. team, said in a statement:

Ali Brivanlou, a biologist at Rockefeller University in New York City, and who headed the U.S. team, said:

In their research, both teams had found a mystery cell cluster that appeared on day 10 of development, which had disappeared on day 12. This suggests that there is a previously unknown biological process taking place. There were also “significant differences” found in the developmental cycles of mice, which are frequently used as stand-ins for humans in laboratory research.

Ethical debate

While the scientific benefits of the experiments are hard to deny, the 14-day experiment deadline was adopted due to ethical reasons. The scientists argue that the limit is reached long before the ethical issues should become a practical concern.

Ethical issues should begin when the clusters of cells stop merging and splitting, and become distinct individual entities that eventually grow into a human fetus. Daniel Brison from the University of Manchester told BBC:

However others expressed concerns. Daniel Sulmasy, a doctor and bioethicist at the University of Chicago, told NPR:

Even though Zernicka-Goetz believes that just a few days extra could bring vast discoveries, she has conceded that she wouldn’t lobby to overturn the current limitations. However, the Nuffield Council of Bioethics, who is the U.K. body which decides on sensitive scientific research, has stated that it will review the current experiment limits.

Brinvalou explained:

The comparison is not the best one; there are a lot of differences between them. However, even the researchers admit the current restrictions can still accommodate an entirely new field of research.

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