Researchers call for international discussions around embryo models from stem cells

Various studies have shown that mouse and human stem cells can spontaneously organize in a dish into 3D structures that resemble embryos grown in the lab. These structures are called embryo models.

In the prestigious research journal Nature, researchers Dr Nicolas Rivron, Professor Martin Pera and colleagues, including Associate Professor Megan Munsie, Deputy Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Systems, urge that international discussion about the ethical considerations must guide this research.

Mouse pluripotent stem cells can form 3D structures that resemble the blastocyst stage of embryonic development which is just three days after fertilisation and before it implants in the uterus. Mouse stem cells can also form structures that are similar to regions of developing embryos post-implantation (between 6-8 days after fertilisation). Work with human stem cells is less advanced.

These models open up all sorts of possibilities in research. Studying mouse and human embryogenesis in the lab could lead to better infertility treatments or contraceptives, more-effective and safer in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures, the prevention and treatment of developmental disorders and even the creation of organs for people who need a transplant.

However, these models also raise profound ethical questions, including the legal status of the embryo models, which future research applications are ethically acceptable and how far an intact human embryo in a dish should be allowed to develop.

Future progress depends on addressing these complex questions now. Moreover, discussions about all these issues and other emerging concerns will need to be regularly revisited as the field evolves.

The authors have also acknowledged the incredibly fast pace of process in this field and have put forward four major recommendations for the continuation of this research:

  1. The intention of the research should be considered the key ethical criterion by regulators.
  2. Regulators ban the use of stem-cell-based entities for reproductive purposes.
  3. Current stem-cell models that are designed to replicate only a restricted part of development, or that form just a few anatomical structures, should not have the ethical status of an embryo created from sperm-egg fertilisation.
  4. Any scientist using human stem cells for research must abide by existing guidelines, such as those of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.

To ensure all model embryo work is conducted ethically, two important outputs from international discussions are needed. First, clear guidelines for researchers; second, a reliable source of information about the current state of the research, its possible trajectory, its potential medical benefits and the key ethical and policy issues it raises. Both guidelines and information should be disseminated to journalists, ethics committees, regulatory bodies, policymakers and community groups.

Such provisions will help to ensure that this research is conducted ethically. Crucially, the recommendations will also help citizens to understand what researchers are doing, and why. Transparency and effective engagement with the public is essential to ensure that promising avenues for research proceed with due caution and appropriate oversight, especially given the complexity of the science and its potential.

For more information:
Read the Nature article.

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A/ Prof Megan Munsie