Research on Embryonic Stem Cells Takes Dangerous Turns
They say they seek understanding for our good, but some scientific practices are not ethically justifiable.
If medical researchers wanted to harvest organs from patients “locked in” a so-called “persistent vegetative state” in order to save other people’s lives, would that be justifiable? Most would be outraged at the thought. If a prospective organ donor indicated by choice that his or her organs could be donated upon accidental death, that is one thing. But some countries that have passed laws for doctor-assisted suicide tempt depressed but otherwise healthy individuals that they could do a good deed for someone else by dying. Crossing an ethical line usually begins with good intentions. When there’s money to be made, the temptation for unethical practices grow.
Down the slippery slope, doctors who took oaths to do no harm become agents of harm, rewarded for killing patients instead of saving them. Reports leak out of China about political prisoners being sacrificed for their organs, creating a lucrative international market for transplants. Planned Parenthood was recently caught under oath admitting that they are selling body parts from aborted babies. No wonder they wish to spread their business! They advocate sex-ed programs that encourage irresponsible sex among teens and even children. The conflict of interest is clear: the more “unwanted” pregnancies, the more cash for P.P.
Say, instead, that medical researchers want to find ways to grow unconscious human bodies that could be used for organ transplants. Would that be better? Once scientists start down that line of pragmatic thinking, Pandora’s Box is open. There’s no end of atrocities that can follow. Star Wars fans might remember the disturbing scene in Attack of the Clones where large armies were created of humanoid clones, who were bred and trained for war. The only way to prevent that happening here is to “do no harm” to each individual human being and respect their natural rights and freedoms. That means treating all individual human beings as exceptional and worthy of respect.
Embryonic Stem Cells: Pushing the Ethical Envelope
It’s been awhile since we reported on embryonic stem cells (ESC). Unlike adult stem cells (ASC) and induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), ESC culture requires the sacrifice of a unique individual human embryo, the product of an egg and a sperm. ESCs can only be extracted after a certain stage. Scientists rationalize their desires to experiment on human embryos, saying that the embryo could not have become a full-grown human anyway. Others take fertilized eggs from in-vitro fertilization clinics using the same excuse; they are unwanted and will die anyway. Calling them “snowflakes” points out that there is no other embryo like them; they have individual, unique sets of traits. Zygotes and embryos are intended to grow to maturity. Their innate genetic program wants to proceed toward that goal. Who is another human being to disrupt it? Is there any rationalization for crossing that ethical line? Watch as scientists whitewash the criticisms, yet reveal twinges of conscience about it.
Human embryo-like model created from human stem cells (University of Cambridge). There’s been an international agreement that no human embryo grown in the lab should exceed 14 days. That convention is arbitrary, except that “This limit was set to fall at the stage where the embryo can no longer form a twin,” reporter Jacqueline Garget explains. And yet scientists have been chomping at the bit to proceed further, so that they can witness the gastrulation stage. Now comes the rationalization. They just want to help people.
Gastrulation is often referred to as the ‘black box’ period of human development, because legal restrictions prevent the culture of human embryos in the lab beyond day 14, when the process starts. This limit was set to fall at the stage where the embryo can no longer form a twin.
Many birth defects originate during this ‘black box’ period, with causes including alcohol, medications, chemicals and infections. A better understanding of human gastrulation could also shed light on many medical issues including infertility, miscarriage, and genetic disorders.
The excuse raises the question of whether tinkering with human embryos only to kill them after 14 or more days is the only way to learn about those medical issues. Animal studies or less invasive techniques are already available. Why experiment on human embryos? Why harvest the stem cells in order to turn them into human tinker toys?
Published today in the journal Nature, the report describes a method of using human embryonic stem cells to generate a three-dimensional assembly of cells, called gastruloids, which differentiate into three layers organised in a manner that resembles the early human body plan.
Now watch the rationalization. These “gastruloids,” which the scientists made by interfering with normal development, can’t grow up anyway.
Gastruloids do not have the potential to develop into a fully-formed embryo. They do not have brain cells or any of the tissues needed for implantation in the womb. This means they would never be able to progress past the very early stages of development, and therefore conform to current ethical standards.
But of course! They cannot develop, because the scientists prevented it. What kind of excuse is that?
Another Slide Down the Slippery Slope
Through this technique, the Cambridge scientists pushed the envelope from 14 days to 18-21 days of gestation. Where will this trend stop? Will future scientists wish to push it to a month, or three months? Will they grow fetuses in the lab with fingers and eyes and muscles, only to dispose of them at the end of the experiment? What if they could prevent the conscious parts of the brain from developing? Would that be justifiable?
In a sidebar at the end of the press release, the University of Cambridge seeks to assuage the consciences of people who might be opposed to this practice. Watch carefully for the rationalizations: (1) all scientists agree, (2) “moral status” of the embryo is only “perceived” (i.e., by religious people); (3) scientists, armed with “new techniques,” want to go beyond the outdated 14-day rule; (4) America is behind the more progressive nations.
The 14-day rule
Researchers in this field follow an internationally acknowledged ethical guideline called the 14-day rule, first recommended in 1984. This limits research on human embryos to the two-week period after fertilisation. The limit relates to the perceived moral status of the human embryo, judged to be acquired during the process of development. In addition, 14 days is roughly the time that gastrulation occurs in the embryo.
Applying the 14-day rule to research on embryo-like models
In the last few years, various new techniques have been developed to produce embryo-like models from animal and human stem cells. This has driven researchers to call for specific guidelines to provide clearer ethical oversight of this rapidly developing field.
Different countries have different approaches to research on embryo-like models derived from human stem cells. In the US, Federal research is restricted in the same way as for human embryos (US Federal law bans the US government from funding research that creates or destroys human embryos). In other countries including the UK and Japan, research on embryo-like models is allowed, because they do not have the potential to grow into an individual.
Is there a twinge of conscience in that phrase, “perceived moral status”? Who would perceive such a thing? Well, most scientific societies in the world in 1984 (note the ironic year) thought it was immoral to keep human embryos growing for longer than 14 days. But this is 2020. Scientists should get over that inconvenient, arbitrary rule. Human embryos are fun to work on. They’re not going to grow into an “individual” anyway.
And what is an individual? Someone who cannot be divided. It’s a being that cannot, and should not, be cut up for another person’s interest.
Assuaging Conscience by Rationalization
Chief perpetrator of this new slide down the slippery slope, Dr Naomi Moris, and her colleague, Professor Alfonso Martinez-Arias, are shown smiling in a photograph at the bottom of the article. They just want to help people. They’re not sure how what they’re doing will help people. It just “could” some day.
Moris added: “Our system is a first step towards modelling the emergence of the human body plan, and could prove useful for studying what happens when things go wrong, such as in birth defects.”
The UK journal Nature, which published the research, praised the advance. “Lab-grown cells mimic crucial moment in embryo development,” the headline by David Cyranoski announces. “Artificial structures developed the rudimentary components of a heart and nervous system.” By killing these unique snowflake embryos, and harvesting their stem cells, scientists might be able to help those lucky enough to have avoided the scalpels of greedy scientists long enough to be born.
The structures, created from stem cells and called gastruloids, are the first to form a 3D assembly that lays out how the body will take shape. The gastruloids developed rudimentary components of a heart and nervous system, but lack the components to form a brain and other cell types that would make them capable of becoming a viable fetus.
Researchers are creating ever more sophisticated artificial structures to study embryo development in the lab. The latest method for making these structures, published in Nature today, could shed light on the causes of pregnancy loss and early developmental disorders, such as congenital heart conditions and spina bifida.
Notice that these living, human embryos have been demoted to “sophisticated artificial structures.” But once again, Cyranoski shows that twinge of conscience about all this:
The artificial structures avoid ethical concerns about doing research on human embryos. But as these structures become more advanced and life-like, scientists say they might also push ethical boundaries.
Aren’t you glad that they avoided ethical concerns? Some day this trend “might also push ethical boundaries,” but readers can be lulled into passive acceptance of the slide by just taking Nature‘s word for it.
Cyranoski comforts readers by describing that the “gastruloids” don’t progress any further; after a certain point, Moris says, they collapse in on themselves and die. Well, of course; they were made to do that. They are “sophisticated artificial structures” programmed to die. The experimenter can watch this and take satisfaction with the thought that ‘it could never become a viable fetus anyway.’
Twinge of Conscience
The scientists know, however, that continuing this trend will eventually face the next stop on the slippery slope, and here is the scariest part of the story:
Scientists will probably use the model to make structures that are even more realistic representations of early development, says Fu. In the next 5–10 years, researchers might be able to add cells that would go on to mimic the placenta. He also expects to see gastruloids with beating hearts. In the womb, an embryo’s heart starts beating at around 22 days. And although the structures have not yet developed the components for brain development, Arias thinks that blocking a certain signal might enable a rudimentary organ to grow.
Such experiments will push ethical boundaries and raise questions about whether these structures could develop into viable fetuses. “We have to be careful that we don’t start generating human embryos,” Fu says.
Arias agrees that this would be a reckless goal. But could it be done? “Not in the short term,” he says.
Just relax. The 1984 barrier fell. The human cloning barrier fell. The gastrulation barrier is falling. But the reckless, unethical practice of creating “sophisticated artificial structures” identical to human babies won’t be happening “in the short term.”
The question Arias dodged, “But could it be done?” should be translated, “Yes; eventually, in the long term.”
Who is to stop the mad scientists, when they think a human being is just a material substance, that evolved from animals, with no rights or freedoms except those decided by cultural convention? Who is to stop those who discard babies in the womb as either non-human clumps of cells or beings in earlier stages of their evolution? Who is to stop those who will do anything to make money, if they can get away with it? Ethical, shmethical. Those darn religious people keep getting in the way of progress.