No Time for Complacency, Speak Up for Ethical Science
May 18, 2021
by David Prentice, PhD
Well, that didn’t take long. As predicted, the parade of challenges to human dignity and human life discussed not long ago has already started to come to pass.
The Biden administration has removed critical ethical reviews and prohibitions on taxpayer-funded experiments using fetal tissue. The new guidelines, including funding for government intramural research with aborted fetal tissue that was very quietly restored so as not to draw notice, ignored proposed changes that would prevent abuses of informed consent, stop trafficking in fetal body parts and establish safeguards. The move also ignores the substantial evidence against this antiquated science and in favor of ethical alternatives.
Meanwhile, an Israeli research group has grown mouse embryos in laboratory bottles for extended periods up to halfway through gestation, and they proposed doing the same experiments with human embryos. The mice-in-a-bottle experiments also manipulated the mouse embryos, using them to test toxicity of compounds, to do gene editing mutation experiments and adding human stem cells to mouse embryos to form human-mouse chimeras. Next would be experiments with human embryos. The lead researcher noted: “I would advocate growing it [a human embryo] until day 40 and then disposing of it.”
The story of growing embryos outside the womb for extended periods comes just as researchers are advocating for removal of the “14 day limit,” an arbitrary prohibition on growing human embryos in the laboratory that has provided an ethical façade for embryo researchers. However, the only real ethical line to prevent human embryo exploitation would be a zero-day limit.
Within the last two months, there have also been five reports on creating so-called “artificial” or “synthetic” human embryos, sometimes called embyroids, blastoids or embryo-like constructs. Four papers appeared almost simultaneously. Two of the papers claiming to be the first complete models of a human embryo appeared in the same issue of the journal Nature as the mice-in-a-bottle experiment. By combining different stem cells, the researchers were able to form biological structures possessing not only the cells that form the embryo body proper but also cells needed to form a placenta, bringing the laboratory-generated embryos to the brink of being recognized as viable human embryos. Two other papers showing similar results at constructing embryos appeared at almost the same time on the bioRxiv preprint server, while a fifth paper published recently in Cell Stem Cell was touted by the authors as providing “a robust experimental model for human embryo research.” While all of these papers studiously avoid calling their stem cell-derived constructs “embryos,” there is no doubt that the end goal is to make not just approximations, but the real thing. “A rose by any other name….”
The human-mouse chimeras noted above were surpassed by an international collaboration between American and Chinese scientists who produced human-monkey chimeras. The chimeric animals were created in China, which has looser ethical oversight because of prohibitions on such research in the U.S. But the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) has been considering loosening restrictions and allowing such human-animal hybrids. One recent NIH initiative recruited the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (decidedly not a paragon of ethics) to review this area of research and make recommendations. The ad hoc committee released its report on neural organoids and chimeras in April. Given the highly permissive views of the National Academies regarding embryo experiments, it was unsurprising that the report endorses as ethical much of the research and feels using current oversight mechanisms is sufficient for regulation of this highly controversial research. The report ignores any serious ethical concerns regarding chimeras and kicks the question down the road for future discussion.
Another group that is extremely permissive regarding experiments with embryos is the International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR). The ISSCR has held several webinars discussing embryo models and chimeras, and it has also published a journal issue on embryos and embryo models, preparatory to release of new guidelines on creation of embryos and embryo-like entities as well as human-animal chimeras. The existing ISSCR guidelines promulgated in 2016 labeled as prohibited research activities all of the embryo research mentioned above (see section 18.104.22.168), noting that this research should not be pursued “because of broad international consensus that such experiments lack a compelling scientific rationale, raise substantial ethical concerns, and/or are illegal in many jurisdictions.” While none of those reasons for prohibition have changed, the desire to experiment with young human life has overridden good science as well as good ethics. The ISSCR is expected to issue revised guidelines in May, gutting any prohibitions and ignoring ethical concerns.
While recent months present a dizzying and disappointing series of moves that degrade science and medicine, these areas of research have an additional point in common beyond abysmal ethics and disregard for human life: Each of these research areas has a history of unproductive science. They are perpetually touted as the next fount of cures, yet they do not deliver. While they may momentarily satisfy the desires of some scientists, they fail the patients and human society hoping in the false promises. Is it any wonder that society is becoming more jaded about “the next great cure” or that the gleam of science has been tarnished in the public eye? But let not your hearts be troubled. Contrast the unproductive science with ethical alternatives, such as adult stem cells. Life-affirming choices have produced results for millions of those in need. Remind yourself by browsing through the stories of patients and families helped by ethical science and medicine at StemCellResearchFacts.org. Then speak up for those who have no voice.