Scientists have reported the creation of synthetic human embryos derived from stem cells without the use of eggs or sperm. This landmark announcement may be a game-changer for research, but it raises questions for regulators.
Synthetic structures represent the earliest stages of human development, which could allow vital research into disorders such as habitual miscarriage and genetic diseases. But questions have been raised about the legal and ethical implications as the pace of scientific discovery outpaces legislation.
How were synthetic embryos created?
The scientific research breakthrough was announced by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Getz, a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge and the California Institute of Technology, at the 2023 annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research. The results have not yet been published in a peer-reviewed article.
The synthetic structures model the very rudiments of human development. They don’t yet have a brain or heart, but they contain the cells needed to form the placenta, yolk sac and embryo. Žernicka-Getz told conference attendees that the structures were grown to the equivalent of 14 days of natural gestation of a human embryo in the womb.
What opportunities do the creation of synthetic embryos offer?
The creation of synthetic embryos opens up new possibilities for developmental biology research. Currently, the law allows human embryos to be cultured in the laboratory for no more than 14 days. After that, there is a window of time when developmental biology research is hampered because scientists can find the trail much later by studying snapshots of pregnant women and donor embryos. It is hoped that synthetic embryo technology will help fill this gap.
“The ability to reproduce early human development events using stem cells in a cup is an outstanding breakthrough in cellular and reproductive technology,” said Dr. Rodrigo Suarez of the University of Queensland. “The potential benefits are enormous and range from a better understanding of how early tissues self-organize at stages that cannot be studied with current approaches to elucidating the genetic and cellular needs associated with early human development in health and disease.”
What ethical and legal questions does the creation of synthetic embryos raise?
The creation of synthetic embryos raises questions about legal and ethical implications. For example, how similar are these structures to natural embryos? What rules will apply to the use of these structures in research? Does legislation need to be changed to account for new technologies?
Currently, the law allows human embryos to be cultured in the laboratory for no more than 14 days. However, the technology of synthetic embryos may necessitate a revision of this law.
Reacting to this news, other stem cell research experts stressed the importance of improving our understanding of embryonic development. The creation of synthetic embryos is an important step in this direction.