Scientists Grow Human Embryos in the Lab for Longest Time Yet

Thursday, 05 May 2016 - 11:24AM
Thursday, 05 May 2016 - 11:24AM
Scientists Grow Human Embryos in the Lab for Longest Time Yet
Could we someday grow a human child in a lab? Scientists just hit a huge milestone by keeping human embryos alive in the lab for thirteen days, shattering the previous record. And craziest of all--they didn't stop the experiment because the embryo had died, but because they were hitting against the legal limit of two weeks.

Generally, scientists are only able to observe embryo development for up to a week, since this is usually when implantation takes place and researchers had trouble keeping embryos alive outside for longer. But for this study, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Rockefeller University placed the fertilized eggs into a solution of growth factors and hormones that simulates the environment within the uterus, which kept the embryos alive for much longer than expected. And by providing the embryos with a wall-like structure that imitates the uterine wall, they were even able to observe the process of implantation for the first time. 

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"This is the period of our lives that some of the most important [biological] decisions are made," lead researcher of one of the teams, Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz from the University of Cambridge in the UK, told the Wall Street Journal. "It was entirely a black box of development that we were not able to access until now."
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The researchers were able to make many key observations about early human development, but most remarkably of all, they discovered that the human embryo is capable of differentiating and self-organizing without assistance from the mother's uterus:

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"We had seen self-organisation using this system in the mouse embryo, and also in human embryonic stem cells, but we did not anticipate we'd see self-organisation in the context of a whole human embryo," lead researcher of the second team, Ali Brivanlou from Rockefeller University, said in a statement. "Amazingly, at least up to the first 12 days, development occurred normally in our system in the complete absence of maternal input."
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The two-week rule was decided in the 1980's by bioethicists, who were trying to prevent scientists from "playing God" with human life. They used the two-week demarcation because at that time, the embryo starts to individualize in the sense that it can no longer fuse with another embryo or split into identical twins. But now, with this latest advancement, many researchers are claiming that this policy is arbitrary, and that it should be lifted for the sake of progress.

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"This was a major scientific milestone," said bioethicist Insoo Hyum from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and lead author of an accompanying opinion piece in Nature. "We're now at the stage where the decades-old rule is up for challenge because of the scientific value of what these scientists are trying to do."
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Although it's a little frightening to think of the implications of growing human embryos past the individualization stage, and possibly even incubating children outside of their mothers entirely, it's worthy research to undertake. Not only could studying human development in such great detail help us to treat a whole host of developmental defects and diseases, but if we get past the initial Brave New World-esque stigma, it could potentially change women's place in society and (somehow) satisfy people on both sides of the abortion debate.

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"The 14-day rule was never intended to be a bright line denoting the onset of moral status in human embryos," Hyum and his co-authors wrote. "Rather, it is a public-policy tool designed to carve out a space for scientific inquiry and simultaneously show respect for the diverse views on human-embryo research."
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