Researchers are now able to reliably develop stem cells into artificial blastocysts, known as “human blastoids,” that mimic human embryos.
This news from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences was reported in Nature on Dec. 2. These synthetic blastoids are made up of roughly 100 cell masses and appear ready to implant into a uterine wall.
While the idea of artificially grown embryos goes back to Aldous Huxley in his classic 1932 novel A Brave New World, synthetic blastoid research only dates back a few years, with progress increasing rapidly this year.
In June, British scientists reported success in creating artificial blastoids that formed structures similar to that of natural embryos in utero, with a 30%-80% success rate.
This is a staggering number, since researchers at Monash University of Australia, the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and Kunming Medical University in China reported a 10% success rate in March.
The science of synthetic blastoids is moving at warp speed, but moral discussions about the cells and possible future embryos is lacking. So, what is really going on in these labs?
Blastoids are artificially developed embryoids that resemble blastocyst – a structure in mammals which typically develops five days after conception.
The blastocyst contains an inner cell mass, called an embryoblast, an outer wall made up of trophoblast cells and an open cavity. This inner mass of cells ultimately evolves into an embryo.
The purpose of synthetic blastoids is to enable the ethical study of human embryo development without destroying naturally conceived embryos.
The stem cells used to develop blastoids are either from existing fetal cell lines, which date back to the 1960’s and have been used to develop a wide range of vaccines and have been involved in other medical processes, or they are reprogrammed adult cells (often skin cells).
Many deem this process ethical because no new fetal tissue is destroyed, and no new human embryonic cell lines are created.
Since synthetic blastoids resemble natural blastocysts, researchers have been following an international standard that allows researchers to study and grow human stem cells for up to 14 days. After that, they are required to be destroyed.
In May, the International Society for Stem Cell Research recommended lifting the ban, but most countries have not changed their rules yet. This change potentially opens the door for allowing synthetic blastoids to continue to develop in an artificial environment.
This research is providing much data about the formation of human beings in utero, but there needs to be a discussion about the status of these synthetic blastoids. Bioethicists and regulators must consider the moral status of synthetic blastoids.
While this might seem like an ivory tower philosophical question, it is not. It has real world implications, especially for the continuation of this valuable research.
Are they human? If so, would they fall within the established guidelines for fetal and human experimentation? And should they be granted the typical rights afforded to human beings?
The term “synthetic blastoids” confuses the matter by implying that the mass of cells is purely artificial when they are not.
These cells are derived from human cells, either from existing fetal cell lines or manipulated human cells, and they act like naturally conceived human cells. Therefore, why should they not be considered human and thus be granted human rights?
This line of thinking needs to also be pushed further.
With the ability to edit genes, is it possible that synthetic embryos could create a new class of humans similar to the synthetic people in the movie Blade Runner? Or might we see genetic sorting and manipulation to establish future people into a caste like Huxley’s utopian society?
Some would consider this whole line of thinking sensationalism, but the questions need serious consideration.
The 14-day rule was an arbitrary timeline, but it did serve a purpose: providing time to ask about the appropriateness of this kind of research.
We need a similar framework for synthetic blastoid research, coupled with a serious discussion of the moral status of these artificial embryos.
If they are not human, then why is there a research limit at all? If they are human, then we must consider a host of questions, including:
- How far should researchers be allowed to develop synthetic blastoids?
- What regulation is needed?
- Who should be allowed to own or control specific blastoids?
- Do they have rights?
- What are the moral, ethical obligations of researchers toward these entities?
What once was confined to the realm of science fiction is quickly becoming a reality, so people of faith and the moral community need to invest significant energy and catch up with ground-breaking scientific research.
Senior Staff Chaplain and Clinical Ethicist at the Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Arkansas.