Ethics needs context. So does science – specifically, science that aims to create bioengineered models of early human embryo development in a dish (hereafter synthetic embryos). Even the term "synthetic embryos" begs for an explanation. What are these? And why would anyone want to create them?
"This knowledge may help scientists understand how certain birth defects are formed and why miscarriages often occur."
First the research context. Synthetic embryos are stem cell-derived simulations of human post-implantation embryos that are designed to mimic a stage of early development called gastrulation. That's the stage—around 14-15 days after fertilization – when embryos begin to form a very primitive body plan (basic dorsal-ventral and anterior-posterior axes, and distinct cell lineages). Researchers are starting to create synthetic embryos in the lab – albeit imperfect and incomplete versions – to learn how gastrulation might unfold in real human embryos embedded unseen in the womb. This knowledge may help scientists understand how certain birth defects are formed and why miscarriages often occur soon after implantation. As such, synthetic embryos are meant to be models of human embryo development, not themselves actually embryos. But will synthetic embryos ever get to the point where they are practically the same thing as "natural" human embryos? That is my concern and why I think researchers should avoid creating synthetic embryos capable of doing everything natural embryos can do.
It may not be too difficult to prevent this slide from synthetic to real. Synthetic embryos must be created using sophisticated 3D culture systems that mimic the complex architecture of human embryos. These complex culture systems also have to incorporate precise microinjection systems to chemically trigger the symmetry-breaking events involved in early body plan formation. In short, synthetic embryos need a heavy dose of engineering to get their biological processes going and to help keep them going. And like most engineered entities, designs can be built into the system early to serve well-considered goals – in our case, the goal of not wanting to create synthetic embryos that are too realistic.
"If one wants to study how car engines work, one can model an engine without also modeling the wheels, transmission, and every other car part together."
A good example of this point is found a report published in Nature Communications where scientists created a human stem cell-based 3D model that faithfully recapitulates the biological events around post-implantation amniotic sac development. Importantly, however, the embryo model they developed lacked several key structures and therefore – despite its partial resemblance to an early human embryo – did not have complete human form and potential. While fulfilling their model's aim of revealing a previously inaccessible early developmental event, the team intentionally did not recreate the entire post-implantation human embryo because they did not want to provoke any ethical concerns, as the lead author told me personally. Besides, creating a complete synthetic embryo was not necessary or scientifically justified for the research question they were pursuing. This example goes to show that researchers can create a synthetic embryo to model specific developmental events they want to study without modeling every aspect of a developing embryo. Likewise – to use a somewhat imprecise but instructive analogy – if one wants to study how car engines work, one can model an engine without also modeling the wheels, transmission, and every other car part together.
A representative "synthetic embryo," which in some ways resembles a post-implantation embryo around 14 days after fertilization.
(Courtesy of Yue Shao)
But why should researchers resist creating complete synthetic embryos? To answer this, we need some policy context. Currently there is an embryo research rule in place – a law in many nations, in others a culturally accepted agreement – that intact human embryos must not be grown for research in the lab for longer than 14 consecutive days after fertilization or the formation of the primitive streak (a faint embryonic band that signals the start of gastrulation). This is commonly referred to as the 14-day rule. It was established in the UK decades ago to carve out a space for meritorious human embryo research while simultaneously assuring the public that researchers won't go too far in cultivating embryos to later developmental stages before destroying them at the end of their studies. Many citizens accepting of pre-implantation stage human embryo research would not have tolerated post-implantation stage embryo use. The 14-day rule was a line in the sand, drawn to protect the advancement of embryo research, which otherwise might have been stifled without this clear stopping point. To date, the 14-day rule has not been revoked anywhere in the world, although new research in extended natural embryo cultivation is starting to put some pressure on it.
"Perhaps the day will come when scientists don't have to apply for research funding under such a dark cloud of anti-science sentiment."
Why does this policy context matter? The creation of complete synthetic embryos could raise serious questions (some of them legal) about whether the 14-day rule applies to these lab entities. Although they can be constructed in far fewer than 14 days, they would, at least in theory, be capable of recapitulating all of a natural embryo's developmental events at the gastrulation stage, thus possibly violating the spirit of the 14-day rule. Embryo research laws and policies worldwide are not ready yet to tackle this issue. Furthermore, professional guidelines issued by the International Society for Stem Cell Research prohibit the culture of any "organized embryo-like cellular structures with human organismal potential" to be cultured past the formation of the primitive streak. Thus, researchers should wait until there is greater clarity on this point, or until the 14-day rule is revised through proper policy-making channels to explicitly exclude complete synthetic embryos from its reach.
I should be clear that I am not basing my recommendations on any anti-embryo-research position per se, or on any metaphysical position regarding the positive moral status of synthetic embryos. Rather, I am concerned about the potential backlash that research on complete synthetic embryos might bring to embryo research in general. I began this essay by saying that ethics needs context. The ethics of synthetic embryo research needs to be considered within the context of today's fraught political environment. Perhaps the day will come when scientists don't have to apply for research funding under such a dark cloud of anti-science sentiment. Until then, however, it is my hope that scientists can fulfill their research aims by working on an array of different but each purposefully incomplete synthetic embryo models to generate, in the aggregate of their published work, a unified portrait of human development such that biologically complete synthetic embryo models will not be necessary.
Editor's Note: Read a different viewpoint here written by a leading New York fertility doctor/researcher.
The Friday Five covers five stories in research that you may have missed this week. There are plenty of controversies and troubling ethical issues in science – and we get into many of them in our online magazine – but this news roundup focuses on scientific creativity and progress to give you a therapeutic dose of inspiration headed into the weekend.
Here are the promising studies covered in this week's Friday Five:
- Research on a "smart" bandage for wounds
- A breakthrough in fighting inflammation
- The pros and cons of a new drug for Alzheimer's
- Benefits of the Mediterranean diet - with a twist
- How to recycle a plastic that was un-recyclable
Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are surging across the U.S. to 2.5 million cases in 2021 according to preliminary data from the CDC. A new prevention and treatment strategy now in clinical trials may provide a way to get a handle on them.
It's easy to overlook the soaring rates of gonorrhea, chlamydia, and syphilis because most of those infections have few or no symptoms and can be identified only through testing. But left untreated, they can lead to serious damage to nerves and tissue, resulting in infertility, blindness, and dementia. Infants developing in utero are particularly vulnerable.
Covid-19 played havoc with regular medical treatment and preventive care for many health problems, including STIs. After formal lockdowns ended, many people gradually became more socially engaged, with increases in sexual activity, and may have prioritized these activities over getting back in touch with their doctors.
A second blow to controlling STIs is that family planning clinics are closing left and right because of the Dobbs decision and legislation in many states that curtailed access to an abortion. Discussion has focused on abortion, but those same clinics also play a vital role in the diagnosis and treatment of STIs.
Routine public health is the neglected stepchild of medicine. It is called upon in times of crisis but as that crisis resolves, funding dries up. Labs have atrophied and personnel have been redirected to Covid, “so access to routine screening for STIs has been decimated,” says Jennifer Mahn, director of sexual and clinical health with the National Coalition of STD Directors.
A preview of what we likely are facing comes from Iowa. In 2017, the state legislature restricted funding to family health clinics in four counties, which closed their doors. A year later the statewide rate of gonorrhea skyrocketed from 83 to 153.7 cases per 100,000 people. “Iowa counties with clinic closures had a significantly larger increase,” according to a study published in JAMA. That scenario likely is playing out in countless other regions where access to sexual health care is shrinking; it will be many months before we have the data to know for sure.
A decades-old antibiotic finds a new purpose
Using drugs to protect against HIV, either as post exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), has proven to be quite successful. Researchers wondered if the same approach might be applied to other STIs. They focused on doxycycline, or doxy for short. One of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics in the U.S., it’s a member of the tetracycline family that has been on the market since 1967. It is so safe that it’s used to treat acne.
Two small studies using doxy suggested that it could work to prevent STIs. A handful of clinical trials by different researchers and funding sources set out to generate the additional evidence needed to prove their hypothesis and change the standard of care.
Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted, “These are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use.
The first with results is the DoxyPEP study, conducted at two sexual health clinics in San Francisco and Seattle. It drew from a mix of transgender women and men who have sex with men, who had at least one diagnosed STI over the last year. The researchers divided the participants into two groups: one with people who were already HIV-positive and engaged in care, while the other group consisted of people who were on PrEP to prevent infection with HIV. For the active part of the study, a subset of the participants received doxy, and the rest of the participants did not.
The researchers intentionally chose to do the study in a population at the highest risk of having STIs, who were very health oriented, and “who were getting screened every three months or so as part of their PrEP program or their HIV care program,” says Connie Celum, a senior researcher at the University of Washington on the study.
Each member of the active group was given a supply of doxy and asked to take two pills within 72 hours of having sex where a condom was not used. The study was supposed to run for two years but, in May, it stopped halfway through, when a safety monitoring board looked at the data and recommended that it would be unethical to continue depriving the control group of the drug’s benefits.
Celum presented these preliminary results from the DoxyPEP study in July at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal. “We saw about a 56 percent reduction in gonorrhea, about 80 percent reduction in chlamydia and syphilis, so very significant reductions, and this is on a per quarter basis,” she told a later webinar.
In Kenya, another study is following a group of cisgender women who are taking the same two-pill regimen to prevent HIV, and the data from this research should become available in 2023. Senior researcher Victor Omollo, with the Kenya Medical Research Institute, noted that “these are prevention interventions that women can control on their own without having to seek or get consent from another person,” as is the case with condom use, another effective prevention tool.
Antibiotic resistance is a potentially big concern. About 25 percent of gonorrhea strains circulating in the U.S. are resistant to the tetracycline class of drugs, including doxy; rates are higher elsewhere. But resistance often is a matter of degree and can be overcome with a larger or longer dose of the drug, or perhaps with a switch to another drug or a two-drug combination.
Research has shown that an established bacterial infection is more difficult to treat because it is part of a biofilm, which can leave only a small portion or perhaps none of the cell surface exposed to a drug. But a new infection, even one where the bacteria is resistant to a drug, might still be vulnerable to that drug if it's used before the bacterial biofilm can be established. Preliminary data suggests that may be the case with doxyPEP and drug resistant gonorrhea; some but not all new drug resistant infections might be thwarted if they’re treated early enough.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community.
Resistance does not seem to be an issue yet for chlamydia and syphilis even though doxy has been a recommended treatment for decades, but a remaining question is whether broader use of doxy will directly worsen antibiotic resistance in gonorrhea, or promote it in other STIs. And how will it affect the gut microbiome?
In addition, Celum notes that we need to understand whether doxy will generate mutations in other bacteria that might contribute to drug resistance for gonorrhea, chlamydia or syphilis. The studies underway aim to provide data to answer these questions.
“There are some tradeoffs” to these interventions, Celum says, and people may disagree on the cost of increased resistance balanced against the benefits of treating the STIs and reducing their spread within the community. That might affect doctors' willingness to prescribe the drug.
Turning research into action
The CDC makes policy recommendations for prevention services such as taking doxy, requiring some and leaving others optional. Celum says the CDC will be reviewing information from her trial at a meeting in December, but probably will wait until that study is published before making recommendations, likely in 2023. The San Francisco Department of Public Health issued its own guidance on October 20th and anecdotally, some doctors around the country are beginning to issue prescriptions for doxy to select patients.
About half of new STIs occur in young people ages 15 to 24, a group that is least likely to regularly see a doctor. And sexual health remains a great taboo for many people who don't want such information on their health record for prying parents, employers or neighbors to find out.
“People will go out of their way and travel extensive distances just to avoid that,” says Mahn, the National Coalition director. “People identify locations where they feel safe, where they feel welcome, where they don't feel judged,” Mahn explains, such as community and family planning clinics. They understand those issues and have fees that vary depending on a person’s ability to pay.
Given that these clinics already are understaffed and underfunded, they will be hard pressed to expand services covering the labor intensive testing and monitoring of a doxyPEP regimen. Sexual health clinics don't even have a separate line item in the federal budget for health. That is something the National Association of STI Directors is pushing for in D.C.
DoxyPEP isn't a panacea, and it isn't for everyone. “We really want to try to reach that population who is most likely going to have an STI in the next year,” says Celum, “Because that's where you are going to have the biggest impact.”