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Beneficial Embryo Research Needs Clear Guidelines, Experts Say

Human embryo research made global news at the end of 2018 when Chinese researcher Jiankui He announced the birth of the world’s first two genetically altered babies. | freshidea/Adobe Stock

Experts on the topic of human embryo research called for an increase in clear guidelines and oversight of the research in order to increase confidence in its value and safety during a February 15 press briefing held at the 2020 AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle.

“I think building confidence and trust in science is important, not only for society, but for scientists” said Ana Iltis, professor of university studies and philosophy at Wake Forest University and director of the university’s Center for Bioethics, Health & Society, “so thinking about the structures that help you do that is really vital.”

The topic of human embryo research — important to the advancement of science, complex in its ramifications and controversial — made global news again at the end of 2018, when Chinese researcher Jiankui He announced the birth of the world’s first two genetically altered babies, a set of twins.

“We got huge pushback from the 2018 announcement, which has also resulted in everyone wanting to decide on what you want and what you don’t want to do with this research,” said Kirstin Matthews, fellow in Science and Technology Policy at Rice University.

Earlier, in 2014, scientists manipulated human embryonic cells into “embryoids,” clumps of stem cells that mimic some of the key features of early human development. Two years later, researchers reported having cultivated human embryos up to, but stopping at, 14 days past fertilization.

The 14-day limit, used by scientists to represent when the embryo should be granted special status beyond being just a research tool, is one that has been adhered to generally for more than 30 years and is national policy in the United Kingdom, Japan, Spain, South Korea, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands. Other countries have banned some or all human embryo research, and nations such as the United States, France and Israel have no clear limit.

As pointed out at the briefing, the 14-day limit could increasingly be put to the test. Researchers have only now figured out how to grow embryos beyond 14 days, and some argue that this should be allowed because of the potentially beneficial medical advances that could result.

All such research, however, requires that the embryos be destroyed, which “for people who see embryos as early human life,” said Iltis, “can be deeply problematic.”

Kirstin Matthews and Ana Iltis spoke Feb. 15 at a AAAS Annual Meeting press briefing. | Robb Cohen Photography & Video

At the same time, the genetically altered twins in China pose another ethical challenge regarding permitting manipulated embryos to be born.

“It is reasonable to think that we are headed in that direction,” said Iltis, “so it is ever more important not to put our blinders on, and to consider the conditions in which it might be reasonable to do this work.”

Embryoids pose further ethical and regulatory complications, because although they are not embryos, they are embryo-like, they may jump ahead to developmental stages in a nonlinear manner, and they may in the future be cultivated into functional embryos.

With no ethical or regulatory guidelines, embryoid research is a “wide open space,” Iltis said, adding that such research poses many questions about how it should be conducted and whether it should be regulated at all. At the same time, “how we understand what embryoids are,” Iltis said, is likely to change as the research is conducted.

Matthews is a close observer of the conversations among scientists across the globe about research involving embryoids, or synthetic embryos, and whether entities like the National Institutes of Health (NIH) will fund that research. She also points out that while the U.S. government bans federal funding of human embryo research through the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, the amendment has to be renewed each year and places no limit on privately funded research. Meanwhile, the NIH is assessing grants on a case-by-case basis, Matthews said.

At the same time that the United States has uneven oversight, the rules in other countries also differ widely.

“In theory, some [human embryo] research could have been conducted without any external review, and that is what makes people really uncomfortable – having no oversight whatsoever,” Matthews said. “Overarching guidelines of what is ‘not acceptable’ are needed to guide policies and limit bad actors.”

Research involving human embryos could promote significant advances in reproductive medicine, as well as in the study of neurodegenerative diseases that have no cures even after years of investigation. Because such diseases start very early in life but often show no symptoms until decades after birth, research is needed to look at their origin, which can be accomplished by experimentally modeling the diseases within human embryos.

Mijo Simunovic, assistant professor of chemical engineering at Columbia University, addressed human embryo research during an earlier symposium presentation at the AAAS meeting. In it, he outlined what is known about human embryo research and what remains unknown. He also provided a distinction between what can be learned from animal models versus what might only be accessible through observation of actual human embryo development.

Regarding the oversight and regulation of the research, Iltis said, “embryo and embryoid research pose new questions, but in some ways they’re really old questions and challenges involving how to craft public policy on contentious ethical issues in a morally pluralistic society.”