Scientists have grown the first "synthetic embryo," in a lab. This is a big step forward in science, but it has also sparked a heated debate about the ethics of such technological capability.
Researchers at Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science, led by molecular geneticist Joseph Hanna, were able to make a synthetic mouse embryo in a lab without using fertilized eggs or a uterus. This could give us an idea of what happens in the early stages of a human pregnancy as well.
This new embryo model, as described in the team's paper published this week in the journal 'Cell,' was able to mimic all the parts of an early body, "including precursors of heart, blood, brain, and other organs," as well as "the support cells like those found in the placenta and other tissues required to establish and maintain a pregnancy," as University of Melbourne stem cell researcher Megan Munsie, who was not involved in the research, wrote in an article for The Conversation.
The research could lead to big changes.
"This is a crucial stage in humans, many pregnancies are lost around this stage, and we don't really know why," Munsie wrote. "Having models provides a way to better understand what can go wrong, and possibly insights into what we may be able to do about it."
The embryo model, on the other hand, only lived for eight of the 20 days of a mouse's embryonic cycle. This was a big problem, given that Hanna's company, Renewal Bio, was founded to make money from this research.
The goal of the new company is to create synthetic human stem cells to solve health crises. However, experts say this science won't be ready for decades.
In short, Bio Renewal wants to make people that are like embryos so that it can take tissues from them to use in transplants.
Critics talking to MIT Technology Review said it wasn't time to talk about making synthetic human embryos, especially given the political context and controversy surrounding the research.
Nicolas Rivron, a stem-cell scientist at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, told the magazine, "It's not at all necessary, so why would you do it?"
He's not the only one who thinks that way.
In response to the new study, James Briscoe of the Francis Crick Institute in London told The Guardian, "Synthetic human embryos are not an immediate prospect."
"We know less about human embryos than mouse embryos and the inefficiency of the mouse synthetic embryos suggests that translating the findings to humans requires further development," he said.
No matter where researchers stand on the issue, most agree that it's way too early to talk seriously about the ethics of making human embryos in a lab, but it's still a big step forward.