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.
Glioblastoma is an aggressive and deadly brain cancer, causing more than 10,000 deaths in the US per year. In the last 30 years there has only been limited improvement in the survival rate despite advances in radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Today the typical survival rate is just 14 months and that extra time is spent suffering from the adverse and often brutal effects of radiation and chemotherapy.
Scientists are trying to design more effective treatments for glioblastoma with fewer side effects. Now, a team at the Department of Neurosurgery at Houston Methodist Hospital has created a magnetic helmet-based treatment called oncomagnetic therapy: a promising non-invasive treatment for shrinking cancerous tumors. In the first patient tried, the device was able to reduce the tumor of a glioblastoma patient by 31%. The researchers caution, however, that much more research is needed to determine its safety and effectiveness.
How It Works
“The whole idea originally came from a conversation I had with General Norman Schwarzkopf, a supposedly brilliant military strategist,” says Dr David Baskin, professor of neurosurgery and leader of the effort at Houston Methodist. “I asked him what is the secret to your success and he said, ‘Energy. Take out the power grid and the enemy can't communicate.’ So I thought about what supplies [energy to] cancer, especially brain cancer.”
Baskin came up with the idea of targeting the mitochondria, which process and produce energy for cancer cells.
This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The magnetic helmet creates a powerful oscillating magnetic field. At a set range of frequencies and timings, it disrupts the flow of electrons in the mitochondria of cancer cells. This leads to a release of certain chemicals called ROS (Reactive Oxygen Species). In normal cells, this excess ROS is much lower, and is neutralized by other chemicals called antioxidants.
However, cancer cells already have more ROS: they grow rapidly and uncontrollably so their mitochondria need to produce more energy which in turn generates more ROS. By using the powerful magnetic field, levels of ROS get so high that the malignant cells are torn apart.
The biggest challenge was working out the specific range of frequencies and timing parameters they needed to use to kill cancer cells. It took skill, intuition, luck and lots of experiments. The helmet could theoretically be used to treat all types of glioblastoma.
Developing the magnetic helmet was a collaborative process. Dr Santosh Helekar is a neuroscientist at Houston Methodist Research Institute and the director of oncomagnetics (magnetic cancer therapies) at the Peak Center in Houston Methodist Hospital. His previous invention with colleagues gave the team a starting point to build on. “About 7 years back I developed a portable brain magnetic stimulation device to conduct brain research,” Helekar says. “We [then] conducted a pilot clinical trial in stroke patients. The results were promising.”
Helekar presented his findings to neurosurgeons including Baskin. They decided to collaborate. With a team of scientists behind them, they modified the device to kill cancer cells.
The magnetic helmet studied for treatment of glioblastoma
Dr. David Baskin
After success in the lab, the team got FDA approval to conduct a compassionate trial in a 53-year-old man with end-stage glioblastoma. He had tried every other treatment available. But within 30 days of using the magnetic helmet his tumor shrank by 31%.
Sadly, 36 days into the treatment, the patient had an unrelated head injury due to a fall. The treatment was paused and he later died of the injury. Autopsy results of his brain highlighted the dramatic reduction in tumor cells.
Baskin says, “This is the most exciting thing in glioblastoma treatment I've seen since I've been a neurosurgeon but it is very preliminary.”
The helmet is part of a growing number of non-invasive cancer treatments. One device that is currently being used by glioblastoma patients is Optune. It uses electric fields called tumor treating fields to slow down cell division and has been through a successful phase 3 clinical trial.
The magnetic helmet has the promise to be another useful non-invasive treatment according to Professor Gabriel Zada, a neurosurgeon and director of the USC Brain Tumor Center. “We're learning that various electromagnetic fields and tumor treating fields appear to play a role in glioblastoma. So there is some precedent for this though the tumor treating fields work a little differently. I think there is major potential for it to be effective but of course it will require some trials.”
Professor Jonathan Sherman, a neurosurgeon and director of neuro-oncology at West Virginia University, reiterates the need for further testing. “It sounds interesting but it’s too early to tell what kind of long-term efficacy you get. We do not have enough data. Also if you’re disrupting [the magnetic field] you could negatively impact a patient. You could be affecting the normal conduction of electromagnetic activity in the brain.”
The team is currently extending their research. They are now testing the treatment in two other patients with end-stage glioblastoma. The immediate challenge is getting FDA approval for those at an earlier stage of the disease who are more likely to benefit.
Baskin and the team are designing a clinical trial in the U.S., .U.K. and Germany. After positive results in cell cultures, they’re in negotiations to collaborate with other researchers in using the technology for lung and breast cancer. With breast cancer, the soft tissue is easier to access so a magnetic device could be worn over the breast.
“My hope is to develop a treatment to treat and hopefully cure glioblastoma without radiation or chemotherapy,” Baskin says. “We're onto a strategy that could make a huge difference for patients with this disease and probably for patients with many other forms of cancer.”
Astronauts at the International Space Station today depend on pre-packaged, freeze-dried food, plus some fresh produce thanks to regular resupply missions. This supply chain, however, will not be available on trips further out, such as the moon or Mars. So what are astronauts on long missions going to eat?
Going by the options available now, says Christel Paille, an engineer at the European Space Agency, a lunar expedition is likely to have only dehydrated foods. “So no more fresh product, and a limited amount of already hydrated product in cans.”
For the Mars mission, the situation is a bit more complex, she says. Prepackaged food could still constitute most of their food, “but combined with [on site] production of certain food products…to get them fresh.” A Mars mission isn’t right around the corner, but scientists are currently working on solutions for how to feed those astronauts. A number of boundary-pushing efforts are now underway.
The logistics of growing plants in space, of course, are very different from Earth. There is no gravity, sunlight, or atmosphere. High levels of ionizing radiation stunt plant growth. Plus, plants take up a lot of space, something that is, ironically, at a premium up there. These and special nutritional requirements of spacefarers have given scientists some specific and challenging problems.
To study fresh food production systems, NASA runs the Vegetable Production System (Veggie) on the ISS. Deployed in 2014, Veggie has been growing salad-type plants on “plant pillows” filled with growth media, including a special clay and controlled-release fertilizer, and a passive wicking watering system. They have had some success growing leafy greens and even flowers.
"Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources."
A larger farming facility run by NASA on the ISS is the Advanced Plant Habitat to study how plants grow in space. This fully-automated, closed-loop system has an environmentally controlled growth chamber and is equipped with sensors that relay real-time information about temperature, oxygen content, and moisture levels back to the ground team at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In December 2020, the ISS crew feasted on radishes grown in the APH.
“But salad doesn’t give you any calories,” says Erik Seedhouse, a researcher at the Applied Aviation Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “It gives you some minerals, but it doesn’t give you a lot of carbohydrates.” Seedhouse also noted in his 2020 book Life Support Systems for Humans in Space: “Integrating the growing of plants into a life support system is a fiendishly difficult enterprise.” As a case point, he referred to the ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative (MELiSSA) program that has been running since 1989 to integrate growing of plants in a closed life support system such as a spacecraft.
Paille, one of the scientists running MELiSSA, says that the system aims to recycle the metabolic waste produced by crew members back into the metabolic resources required by them: “The aim is…to come [up with] a closed, sustainable system which does not [need] any logistics resupply.” MELiSSA uses microorganisms to process human excretions in order to harvest carbon dioxide and nitrate to grow plants. “Ideally, we would like a system which has zero waste and, therefore, needs zero input, zero additional resources,” Paille adds.
Microorganisms play a big role as “fuel” in food production in extreme places, including in space. Last year, researchers discovered Methylobacterium strains on the ISS, including some never-seen-before species. Kasthuri Venkateswaran of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, one of the researchers involved in the study, says, “[The] isolation of novel microbes that help to promote the plant growth under stressful conditions is very essential… Certain bacteria can decompose complex matter into a simple nutrient [that] the plants can absorb.” These microbes, which have already adapted to space conditions—such as the absence of gravity and increased radiation—boost various plant growth processes and help withstand the harsh physical environment.
MELiSSA, says Paille, has demonstrated that it is possible to grow plants in space. “This is important information because…we didn’t know whether the space environment was affecting the biological cycle of the plant…[and of] cyanobacteria.” With the scientific and engineering aspects of a closed, self-sustaining life support system becoming clearer, she says, the next stage is to find out if it works in space. They plan to run tests recycling human urine into useful components, including those that promote plant growth.
The MELiSSA pilot plant uses rats currently, and needs to be translated for human subjects for further studies. “Demonstrating the process and well-being of a rat in terms of providing water, sufficient oxygen, and recycling sufficient carbon dioxide, in a non-stressful manner, is one thing,” Paille says, “but then, having a human in the loop [means] you also need to integrate user interfaces from the operational point of view.”
Growing food in space comes with an additional caveat that underscores its high stakes. Barbara Demmig-Adams from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Colorado Boulder explains, “There are conditions that actually will hurt your health more than just living here on earth. And so the need for nutritious food and micronutrients is even greater for an astronaut than for [you and] me.”
Demmig-Adams, who has worked on increasing the nutritional quality of plants for long-duration spaceflight missions, also adds that there is no need to reinvent the wheel. Her work has focused on duckweed, a rather unappealingly named aquatic plant. “It is 100 percent edible, grows very fast, it’s very small, and like some other floating aquatic plants, also produces a lot of protein,” she says. “And here on Earth, studies have shown that the amount of protein you get from the same area of these floating aquatic plants is 20 times higher compared to soybeans.”
Aquatic plants also tend to grow well in microgravity: “Plants that float on water, they don’t respond to gravity, they just hug the water film… They don’t need to know what’s up and what’s down.” On top of that, she adds, “They also produce higher concentrations of really important micronutrients, antioxidants that humans need, especially under space radiation.” In fact, duckweed, when subjected to high amounts of radiation, makes nutrients called carotenoids that are crucial for fighting radiation damage. “We’ve looked at dozens and dozens of plants, and the duckweed makes more of this radiation fighter…than anything I’ve seen before.”
Despite all the scientific advances and promising leads, no one really knows what the conditions so far out in space will be and what new challenges they will bring. As Paille says, “There are known unknowns and unknown unknowns.”
One definite “known” for astronauts is that growing their food is the ideal scenario for space travel in the long term since “[taking] all your food along with you, for best part of two years, that’s a lot of space and a lot of weight,” as Seedhouse says. That said, once they land on Mars, they’d have to think about what to eat all over again. “Then you probably want to start building a greenhouse and growing food there [as well],” he adds.
And that is a whole different challenge altogether.