Culture & Ethics Icon Culture & Ethics

About Those “Synthetic Embryos”

Photo credit: Global Panorama, via Flickr.

Israeli researchers appear to have created what they are calling “synthetic mouse embryos,” using embryonic stem cells — without fertilization — and developed them about halfway through a normal mouse period of gestation. From the Guardian story:

Last year, the same team described how they had built a mechanical womb that enabled natural mouse embryos to grow outside the uterus for several days. In the latest work, the same device was used to nurture mouse stem cells for more than a week, nearly half the gestation time for a mouse.

Some of the cells were pre-treated with chemicals, which switched on genetic programmes to develop into placenta or yolk sac, while others developed without intervention into organs and other tissues.

While most of the stem cells failed to form embryo-like structures, about 0.5% combined into little balls that grew distinct tissues and organs. When compared with natural mouse embryos, the synthetic embryos were 95% the same in terms of their internal structure and the genetic profiles of the cells. As far as the scientists could tell, the organs that formed were functional.

This Way to Human Experimentation

I have no problem with this work in mice. But the scientists want to take this technology into human experimentation:

But researchers believe the work could also reduce animal experimentation and ultimately pave the way for new sources of cells and tissues for human transplantation. For example, skin cells from a leukaemia patient could potentially be transformed into bone marrow stem cells to treat their condition.

Hold on a second. We heard these same kinds of goals for what was called “therapeutic cloning,” that is creating clones of patients and harvesting the organs or other tissues after a period of gestational development. But media descriptions always left something out: The organs and tissues taken in that process — were it to be done — would have been harvested from unborn cloned human beings. Morally speaking, that’s a much different thing from, say, turning skin cells into stem cells and then into heart cells for use in regenerative treatments.

The Key Determinant

So it seems to me that the key determinant in judging the moral propriety of applying this technology within the human realm is whether this process creates a human being or not. Or, to put it another way, would the “synthetic embryo” be a human organism?

If the “entity” — let’s call it — develops like a natural embryo and has nearly identical genetic properties, why would it be considered something other than bona fide human life? After all, a cloned human embryo doesn’t involve the use of sperm but is as fully human as its counterpart that comes into being through fertilization. Just because sperm and egg are not involved would not necessarily make the resulting entity less human.

What should matter is the nature of the thing itself, however brought into existence. Just calling something “synthetic” doesn’t make it so. And the burden of proof in this regard should fall on the scientists to demonstrate that the process would not create an organism before they are given carte blanche.

The Time Is Now

The broader point in this news is that biotech researchers are developing the most powerful technologies since the splitting of the atom. The time is now — while the field remains embryonic — to establish enforceable ethical and legal boundaries about what can be done, particularly with human research, and what shouldn’t be allowed. Boundaries are needed to help us navigate the tremendous potential of bioscience, without falling into the crassest kind of utilitarianism in which unborn human life is emptied of all intrinsic moral value.

But we are not even having that conversation. The scientists only will agree to voluntary guidelines, which as the old saying goes, are not worth the paper they are written on. Until society demands accountability and transparency, I don’t see any likelihood that biotechnologists will restrain themselves.

Somewhere Aldous Huxley is saying, “I told you so.”

Cross-posted at The Corner.