For the first time in history, scientists have grown human embryos in the lab for nearly two full weeks. The human embryos were grown without the need for a human mother’s womb, and according to scientists, this new development in biological science is a groundbreaking new milestone. It has given researchers a new, unique insight into what they’ve called “the most mysterious stage of human life.”
As Reuters reports, in the past scientists had only been able to grow and study human embryos in lab dishes until the seventh day of their development. Up until now, if scientists wanted to continue to study the lab-grown human embryos, they had to be implanted into a woman’s womb in order to survive and continue development.
Scientists were able to crack the seven-day barrier for growing human embryos with a novel new approach, one that had previously only been used to grow mouse embryos. Researchers simply used the culture method that had been previously reserved for use in growing mouse embryos, and they discovered that it provided an ideal medium to grow human embryos as well. By using the alternative culture method, scientists discovered that they could get an unprecedented, nearly hour-by-hour, view of the development of human embryos. The teams realized that they could watch the development of the lab-grown human embryos, including the method in which cells organize themselves, up until the 13th day of their development. And all without the need for a female’s uterus.
“This it the most enigmatic and mysterious stage of human development. It is a time when the basic body shape is determined.”
The new scientific breakthrough regarding lab-grown human embryos appeared on May 4 in the journal Nature and Nature Cell Biology. It detailed the nature in which embryonic cells that will eventually form the human body are capable of self-organization and how they become “the basic structure of a post-implantation human embryo.” Marta Shahbazi, a researcher at Britain’s University of Cambridge, was a member of the lab-grown human embryo research teams, spoke out on the impressive new research.
“Embryo development is an extremely complex process and while our system may not be able to fully reproduce every aspect of this process, it has allowed us to reveal a remarkable self-organising capacity… that was previously unknown.”
According to Robin Lovell-Badge, who is an expert in stem cells at the Francis Crick Institute in Britain, the new advancement in the study of human embryonic development is a game-changer, providing a “first glimpse” of the early development of human embryos. Lovell-Badge was not directly involved in this human embryo research project. Prior to this study, human embryos could not be directly observed at this stage of development, as at this gestational stage they are implanted in the womb lining and become effectively invisible to researchers.
The new advancement that has allowed human embryos to be grown in the lab for almost two weeks has implications beyond biological science and research. The newly gleaned knowledge could also help improve in-vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments and outcome, as well as provide insights into the field of regenerative medicine.
However, despite the enthusiasm of scientists and the research teams that contributed to this biological milestone, extending the length of time that human embryos can be grown in a lab has raised some serious ethical and legal concerns. Under international law, scientists are barred from growing human embryos in the lab for research purposes for longer than 14 days.
Reportedly, some scientists are now seeking to have this 14-day limit regarding lab-grown human embryos reviewed or even removed.
One such scientist, Zernicka-Goetz, publicly spoke to the media in London about the possibility of growing human embryos in the lab for longer than 14 days. She said that even a few more days of embryo-growing time could provide a “wealth of new information” to researchers.
Director of the Progress Educational Trust, Sarah Norcross, a charitable organization that assists those impacted by genetic conditions and infertility, spoke of extending the 14-day limit for growing human embryos in laboratory conditions a bit more cautiously. According to Norcross, the new human embryo research “raises question” about the 14-day limit but that a lot of international discussion needs to take place before it’s changed or lifted.
“A public discussion of the rights and wrongs of this would need to follow before any change in law could be contemplated.”
What do you think? Is this new announcement about human embryos grown in a lab an exciting scientific breakthrough or science run amok? Do you think that the 14-day limit should be changed or do you think that two weeks is more than enough time for a human embryo to be grown outside of a woman’s uterus?
[Image Courtesy Of Handout/Getty Images]