(LifeSiteNews) — Researchers have created what they’re calling a “textbook image” of a 14-day-old human embryo without using human sperm or eggs. Bioethicists have expressed serious concerns about the research and its potential to create, manipulate, and destroy human life.
The BBC reported that a team of researchers with the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, had programmed 120 “naive” embryonic stem cells to “become any type of tissue in the body” and then used chemicals to “coax” the cells “into becoming four types of cell found in the earliest stages of the human embryo.”
A fraction of that “mixture” — about 1% — reportedly triggered the automatic assembly of cells “into a structure that resembles, but is not identical to, a human embryo,” the news organization said, adding that the artificially-created embryo “model” “even released hormones that turned a pregnancy test positive in the lab.”
The research, published in the journal Nature on Wednesday, is touted as a means of better understanding the emergence of cell types and the development of human organs, as well as helping researchers study genetic illnesses and potentially improve the success rates of in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The research goes a step further than a similar study published in June, in which a team with Cambridge University and the California Institute of Technology created a similar “model” without the use of sperm or eggs, but without achieving quite the degree of similarity as the Weizmann “model.”
Weizmann Institute researcher Jacob Hanna said the scientists’ creation “is really a textbook image of a human day-14 embryo,” something that “hasn’t been done before.”
But the BBC acknowledged that the studies are “legally, ethically and technically fraught.”
The report noted that the development of an artificially-created embryo beyond the 14-day stage wouldn’t be illegal in the U.K. since embryo “models” are not considered real embryos under the law. However, it would be illegal to attempt to implant a “model” into a woman’s womb.
Regardless, the increasing similarity between the “models” and naturally-developing unborn babies has triggered further “ethical questions.”
Professor Robin Lovell Badge, a researcher of embryo development at the Francis Crick Institute in London, expressed uncertainty about how research on the “models” should be carried out.
“So should you regulate them in the same way as a normal human embryo or can you be a bit more relaxed about how they’re treated?” he said in comments to the BBC.
Moreover, some bioethics experts say that the so-called embryonic “models” may not actually be mere “models” at all.
“A synthetic embryo is not a ‘model’ of an embryo, it is an attempt to make an embryo,” said David Albert Jones, director of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre. “If this attempt is successful, scientifically, then it will be wrong ethically, but if it is not successful scientifically then it will not be able to tell us much about normal human development.”
The National Catholic Bioethics (NCB) Center noted that, while Cambridge and California Institute of Technology researchers had created a “model” that they concluded was not a real embryo, the Weizmann Institute team had developed something that sparks far more bioethical worries due to its close similarity to a naturally-developing preborn baby.
“Even though sperm and egg are not directly employed to make synthetic embryos, this also does not rule out the possibility that these entities could be genuine embryos,” wrote NCB Center senior ethicist Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, PhD. “It seems unsafe to start from the assumption that they are ‘synthetic’ and hence ‘not-truly-embryos.’”
According to Pacholczyk, “researchers may be seeking to go around ethics by relying on euphemism.”
“Ethically speaking, a great deal is at stake in these kinds of synthetic embryo experiments that threaten to manipulate and destroy human life,” he continued.
And the artificial creation of human embryo “models” isn’t the only recent research to to raise serious bioethical concerns.
In 2021, researchers sparked outcry when they announced that they were experimenting with human-animal chimeras made from combining human and monkey cells.
“My first question is: Why?” Kirstin Matthews of Rice University’s Baker Institute said in response to the study. “I think the public is going to be concerned, and I am as well, that we’re just kind of pushing forward with science without having a proper conversation about what we should or should not do.”
The new developments in human-animal chimeras and “synthetic embryos” come years after similar ethical debates arose surrounding induced pluripotent stem cells (IPSC), which involve the reprogramming of adult stem cells to imitate an embryonic stage of development, LifeSiteNews has reported.
In 2013, Dr. John Gurdon, who spearheaded research related to nuclear transfer cloning techniques, told LifeSite that IPSC were “probably” already embryos, which, as Pacholczyk also suggested, would negate the narrative that this method was merely creating “embryo-like” cells.
The development and use of embryonic cells is not the same as using adult stem cells, which do not carry the ethical baggage of embryonic stem cells and have been successful in improving serious conditions including multiple sclerosis, paralysis, and other chronic conditions.