Scientists have officially created living forms of “model embryos” in a lab that bear a close resemblance to real human embryos.
The aim of the scientific experiments is to discover information about early development in human beings to hopefully discover new methods of treating fertility issues and stop birth defects or miscarriages from occurring.
According to reporting by NPR, the analysis was published in two different papers on Wednesday in the journal Nature Portfolio and has some asking questions about the moral and ethical dilemmas regarding the creation of life in a lab at such early stages.
Dr. Daniel Sulmasy, a bioethicist at Georgetown University, said, “I’m sure it makes anyone who is morally serious nervous when people start creating structures in a petri dish that are this close to being early human beings.”
He added, “They’re not quite there yet, and so that’s good. But the more they press the envelope, the more nervous I think anybody would get that people are trying to sort of create human beings in a test tube.”
There are certain points of early development in embryos that are “hidden inside women’s bodies during pregnancies,” according to NPR. This makes those periods of development out of reach for scientists to examine.
Jun Wu is a molecular biologist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and was in charge of one of the groups publishing the research. “We know a lot about animals like the mice and rats. But not a lot with humans,” he said. “It is really a black box.”
In the recent past, scientists have reportedly begun to form entities in laboratories that look like human embryos. This process is done by incorporating the use of chemicals to provide signals in order to “coax cells into forming themselves into entities that look like very primitive human embryos.”
No one has ever gotten as far in this type of research as Wu’s team and another group of scientists. The two teams made “hollow balls of cells that closely resemble embryos at the stage when they usually implant in the womb — known as blastocysts,” per NPR. These most recent entities are being called “blastoids.”
Jose Polo is a developmental biologist at Australia’s Monash University and was in charge of the second experiment. “We are very excited,” Polo said. “Now with this technique, we can make hundreds of these structures. So this will allow us to scale up our understanding of very early human development. We think this will be very important.”
According to NPR, the blastoids are very similar to real human embryos, but they seem to be different enough to never form into a baby or a viable fetus. However, they are extremely close.
“Which then raises a very interesting question of, at what point does an embryo model become a real embryo,” said Insoo Hyun, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University and Harvard University.
“This work is absolutely unnerving for many people because it really challenges our tidy categories of what life is and when life begins. This is what I call the biological-metaphysical time machine,” Hyun said.
Hyun stated that there should be certain restrictions put on scientists with the continuation of this type of experimentation, such as a “14-day rule,” which would not allow research to be conducted on the human embryos in a laboratory for longer than two weeks. However, Hyun added that there could be exceptions to the 14-day rule that would allow research to extend past the two weeks, raising concerns as to how long experiments like that should be permitted — if at all.