Synthetic human embryos are created in the lab without egg or sperm: Scientists announce historic breakthrough that raises hopes for new treatments for miscarriages and rare genetic disorders – but development poses huge ethical dilemmas
- Cambridge University and California Institute of Technology formed a joint project
- The embryos are created without eggs or sperm, but are not covered by UK law
Human embryos created without eggs or sperm have been made in a scientific breakthrough that will undoubtedly raise serious ethical and legal questions.
Produced in a joint project between Cambridge University and the California Institute of Technology, they resemble embryos in the earliest stages of human development.
They do not have the beginnings of a brain or beating heart, but do contain cells that would later form the placenta and yolk sac.
Scientists believe their finding could provide much insight and support research into rare genetic conditions and the biological causes of miscarriage.
But the synthetic embryos are not covered by laws in the UK or in most countries around the world, which means they raise serious ethical and legal issues regarding the use of human embryos in a laboratory.
Human embryos created without eggs or sperm have been created in a scientific breakthrough that will undoubtedly raise serious ethical and legal questions (file image)
The embryos do not have the beginnings of a brain or beating heart, but do contain cells that would later form the placenta and yolk sac (file image)
Until this breakthrough, scientists had to adhere to the 14-day rule, which meant they were limited to allowing embryos to develop in a lab for up to two weeks.
After this point, researchers would have to wait until further into development to pick up their study, relying on pregnancy scans and embryos donated for research.
The desire to understand this period of an embryo’s development – which begins on day 14 and ends around day 28 – was the main motivation behind the work to create synthetic human embryos.
Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz, a fellow at the University of Cambridge, described the work yesterday at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research in Boston: ‘We can create human embryo-like models through the reprogramming of (embryonic stem) cells. ‘
Speaking to The Guardian ahead of the conversation, she said: “It’s beautiful and made entirely from embryonic stem cells.”
While it is not yet clear whether the synthetic embryos can continue to develop beyond their early stages, it would be illegal to implant them in a patient’s womb and there is no prospect of them being used for medical purposes any time soon.
Until this breakthrough, scientists had to adhere to the 14-day rule, which meant they were limited to allowing embryos to develop in a lab for a maximum of two weeks (file image)
Robin Lovell-Badge, head of stem cell biology and developmental genetics at the Francis Crick Institute in London, told The Guardian: ‘The idea is that if you really model normal human embryonic development using stem cells, you can get an awful lot of information. about how we start development, what can go wrong, without having to use early embryos for research.’
He discussed the ethical issues surrounding the findings, adding: ‘If these models are meant to be much like normal embryos, then in a sense they should be treated the same.
“Currently in law they are not. People are concerned about this.’