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"In theory you could do anything you wanted with a human embryo in Ireland"

A new, controversial embryo-growth breakthrough could help science in the study of infertility. However, fears abound that the research breaches ethical guidelines.

shutterstock_243273622 Source: Shutterstock/Subbotina Anna

SCIENTISTS HAVE REPORTED that they have grown human embryos in the lab for nearly two weeks, an unprecedented feat that promises advances in assisted reproduction, stem-cell therapies and the basic understanding of how human beings form.

Besides opening a window onto the first steps in the creation of an individual, the findings in parallel studies may help explain early miscarriages and why in vitro fertilisation (IVF) has such a high failure rate.

The research also showed for the first time that newly-forming human embryos can mature beyond a few days outside a mother’s womb, something that was previously thought to be impossible.

But the widely hailed results also set science on a collision course with national laws and ethical guidelines, experts cautioned.

Up to now, a so-called “14-day rule” – which says that human embryos cannot be cultured in the lab for more than two weeks – has never been seriously challenged simply because no one had succeeded in keeping them alive that long.

The Irish slant

Speaking to Morning Ireland on RTÉ Radio today Andrea Mulligan, a lecturer in law and bioethics at Trinity College Dublin, said that there is no concrete international law that Ireland has signed up to when it comes to working with embryos.

“In theory you could do anything you wanted with an embryo here,” she said.

We are in a position of no regulation here in Ireland. We’re caught by general European legislation for the quality and traceability of human cells, but there is no specific regulation of embryos in this country.

Mulligan explained that 14 days is considered the “international ethical rule”, based on something called the primitive streak, or the structural change seen when a human embryo becomes individuated.

“That’s seen as the point at which an embryo reaches a significant moral stage,” she said.

The question now is can you go beyond that and change the rule which has been in place for a long time.

Asked whether any legal framework was likely to be put in place here Mulligan replied: “There may be things going on in the background but there has been no significant legislative change in Ireland since the Commission on Assisted Reproduction reported in 2005.”

Destroyed

In the case of the current research under discussion the scientists involved destroyed the embryos at 13 days to avoid breaching the international limit.

The findings were published in Nature and Nature Cell Biology.

Next to nothing is known about how the small, hollow bundle of cells called a blastocyst – emerging from a fertilised egg – attach to the uterus, allowing an embryo to begin to take shape.

“This portion of human development” – called implantation – “was a complete black box,” said Ali Brivanlou, a professor at The Rockefeller University in New York, and the main architect of the Nature study.

Genetic modification of human embryos File Photo: Embryos being placed onto a CryoLeaf Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Building on previous work with mice, Brivanlou and colleagues concocted a chemical soup and scaffolding to duplicate this process “in vitro”, or in a petri dish.

“We were able to create a system that properly recapitulates what happens during human implantation,” said Rockefeller scientist and lead author Alessia Deglincerti.

As hoped, the blastocyst grew, beginning to divide into the different types of cells that eventually give rise to a foetus and its placenta.

But unlike earlier experiments, in which growth has rarely continued beyond seven days, the embryos showed an unexpected ability to self-organise.

“Amazingly, at least up to the first 12 days, development occurred normally in our system in the complete absence of maternal input,” Brivanlou said in a statement.

It had long been assumed that this transformation could not persist detached from the mother’s uterus.

Slippery slope

“Up to now, it has been impossible to study implantation in human embryos,” said Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a professor at the University of Cambridge and an author for both studies.

This new technique provides us with a unique opportunity to get a deeper understanding of our own development during these crucial stages and helps us understand what happens, for example, during miscarriage.

The breakthrough is also likely to provide a boost to research on the use of embryonic stem cells to treat certain diseases.

“Only with this knowledge, specifically from human cells, can we control their ability to become cell types useful for drug screening or transplantation,” said Gist Croft, also from Rockefeller University.

Scientists not involved in the research hailed the results as a major milestone.

“Both studies clearly demonstrate the incredible intrinsic ability of the embryo to organise itself as it starts to create the body plan – even in the absence of a mother,” said Harry Moore, a professor of reproductive biology at the University of Sheffield in England.

Allan Pacey, also of Sheffield, said they could “revolutionise our understanding of the early events of human embryo development”.

Along with most experts commenting on the findings, Pacey said ethical concerns are likely overblown.

“It will not open the door to couples being able to grow babies in the laboratory – this is not the dawn of a Brave New World scenario,” he said.

But the scientific community and regulators will still be faced with a decision on whether to lift or extend the 14-day rule, which is law in a dozen countries, and accepted practice in five others, including the United States and China.

Most scientists argue for a loosening of the regulations.

“Given the potential benefits of new research in infertility, improving assisted conception methods, there may be a case in the future for reconsidering this,” said Daniel Brison, head of the department of reproductive medicine at the University of Manchester.

But there remains a “slippery slope” problem, commented another expert.

“If we do not use a 14-day rule, what limit will we use?,” asked Henry Greely, director of the Centre for Law and the Biosciences at the Stanford School of Medicine in California.

Twelve weeks or so as in many European abortion laws? Viability – at around 23 weeks – as in US abortion law?

“Human development is a seamless process,” he added. “But ultimately lines need to be drawn.”

Additional reporting Cianan Brennan

© – AFP, 2016

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