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.
In November 2020, messenger RNA catapulted into the public consciousness when the first COVID-19 vaccines were authorized for emergency use. Around the same time, an equally groundbreaking yet relatively unheralded application of mRNA technology was taking place at a London hospital.
Over the past two decades, there's been increasing interest in harnessing mRNA — molecules present in all of our cells that act like digital tape recorders, copying instructions from DNA in the cell nucleus and carrying them to the protein-making structures — to create a whole new class of therapeutics.
Scientists realized that artificial mRNA, designed in the lab, could be used to instruct our cells to produce certain antibodies, turning our bodies into vaccine-making factories, or to recognize and attack tumors. More recently, researchers recognized that mRNA could also be used to make another groundbreaking technology far more accessible to more patients: gene editing. The gene-editing tool CRISPR has generated plenty of hype for its potential to cure inherited diseases. But delivering CRISPR to the body is complicated and costly.
"Most gene editing involves taking cells out of the patient, treating them and then giving them back, which is an extremely expensive process," explains Drew Weissman, professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, who was involved in developing the mRNA technology behind the COVID-19 vaccines.
But last November, a Massachusetts-based biotech company called Intellia Therapeutics showed it was possible to use mRNA to make the CRISPR system inside the body, eliminating the need to extract cells out of the body and edit them in a lab. Just as mRNA can instruct our cells to produce antibodies against a viral infection, it can also teach them to produce the two molecular components that make up CRISPR — a guide molecule and a cutting protein — to snip out a problem gene.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies."
In Intellia's London-based clinical trial, the company applied this for the first time in a patient with a rare inherited liver disease known as hereditary transthyretin amyloidosis with polyneuropathy. The disease causes a toxic protein to build up in a person's organs and is typically fatal. In a company press release, Intellia's president and CEO John Leonard swiftly declared that its mRNA-based CRISPR therapy could usher in a "new era of potential genome editing cures."
Weissman predicts that turning CRISPR into an affordable therapy will become the next major frontier for mRNA over the coming decade. His lab is currently working on an mRNA-based CRISPR treatment for sickle cell disease. More than 300,000 babies are born with sickle cell every year, mainly in lower income nations.
"There is a FDA-approved cure, but it involves taking the bone marrow out of the person, and then giving it back which is prohibitively expensive," he says. It also requires a patient to have a matched bone marrow done. "We give an intravenous injection of mRNA lipid nanoparticles that target CRISPR to the bone marrow stem cells in the patient, which is easy, and much less expensive."
Meanwhile, the overwhelming success of the COVID-19 vaccines has focused attention on other ways of using mRNA to bolster the immune system against threats ranging from other infectious diseases to cancer.
The practicality of mRNA vaccines – relatively small quantities are required to induce an antibody response – coupled with their adaptable design, mean companies like Moderna are now targeting pathogens like Zika, chikungunya and cytomegalovirus, or CMV, which previously considered commercially unviable for vaccine developers. This is because outbreaks have been relatively sporadic, and these viruses mainly affect people in low-income nations who can't afford to pay premium prices for a vaccine. But mRNA technology means that jabs could be produced on a flexible basis, when required, at relatively low cost.
Other scientists suggest that mRNA could even provide a means of developing a universal influenza vaccine, a goal that's long been the Holy Grail for vaccinologists around the world.
"The mRNA technology allows you to pick out bits of the virus that you want to induce immunity to," says Michael Mulqueen, vice president of business development at eTheRNA, a Belgium-based biotech that's developing mRNA-based vaccines for malaria and HIV, as well as various forms of cancer. "This means you can get the immune system primed to the bits of the virus that don't vary so much between strains. So you could actually have a single vaccine that protects against a whole raft of different variants of the same virus, offering more universal coverage."
Before mRNA became synonymous with vaccines, its biggest potential was for cancer treatments. BioNTech, the German biotech company that collaborated with Pfizer to develop the first authorized COVID-19 vaccine, was initially founded to utilize mRNA for personalized cancer treatments, and the company remains interested in cancers ranging from melanoma to breast cancer.
One of the major hurdles in treating cancer has been the fact that tumors can look very different from one person to the next. It's why conventional approaches, such as chemotherapy or radiation, don't work for every patient. But weaponizing mRNA against cancer primes the immune cells with the tumor's specific genetic sequence, training the patient's body to attack their own unique type of cancer.
"It means you're able to think about personalizing cancer treatments down to specific subgroups of patients," says Mulqueen. "For example, eTheRNA are developing a renal cell carcinoma treatment which will be targeted at around 20% of these patients, who have specific tumor types. We're hoping to take that to human trials next year, but the challenge is trying to identify the right patients for the treatment at an early stage."
Repairing Damaged mRNA
While hopes are high that mRNA could usher in new cancer treatments and make CRISPR more accessible, a growing number of companies are also exploring an alternative to gene editing, known as RNA editing.
In genetic disorders, the mRNA in certain cells is impaired due to a rogue gene defect, and so the body ceases to produce a particular vital protein. Instead of permanently deleting the problem gene with CRISPR, the idea behind RNA editing is to inject small pieces of synthetic mRNA to repair the existing mRNA. Scientists think this approach will allow normal protein production to resume.
Over the past few years, this approach has gathered momentum, as some researchers have recognized that it holds certain key advantages over CRISPR. Companies from Belgium to Japan are now looking at RNA editing to treat all kinds of disorders, from Huntingdon's disease, to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, and certain types of cancer.
"With RNA editing, you don't need to make any changes to the DNA," explains Daniel de Boer, CEO of Dutch biotech ProQR, which is looking to treat rare genetic disorders that cause blindness. "Changes to the DNA are permanent, so if something goes wrong, that may not be desirable. With RNA editing, it's a temporary change, so we dose patients with our drugs once or twice a year."
Last month, ProQR reported a landmark case study, in which a patient with a rare form of blindness called Leber congenital amaurosis, which affects the retina at the back of the eye, recovered vision after three months of treatment.
"We have seen that this RNA therapy restores vision in people that were completely blind for a year or so," says de Boer. "They were able to see again, to read again. We think there are a large number of other genetic diseases we could go after with this technology. There are thousands of different mutations that can lead to blindness, and we think this technology can target approximately 25% of them."
Ultimately, there's likely to be a role for both RNA editing and CRISPR, depending on the disease. "I think CRISPR is ideally suited for illnesses where you would like to permanently correct a genetic defect," says Joshua Rosenthal of the Marine Biology Laboratory in Chicago. "Whereas RNA editing could be used to treat things like pain, where you might want to reset a neural circuit temporarily over a shorter period of time."
Much of this research has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has played a major role in bringing mRNA to the forefront of people's minds as a therapeutic.
"The pandemic has really shown that not only are mRNA approaches viable, they could in certain circumstances be vastly superior to more traditional technologies," says Mulqueen. "In the future, I would not be surprised if many of the top pharma products are mRNA derived."
"Making Sense of Science" is a monthly podcast that features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments and the big ethical and societal questions they raise. This episode is hosted by science and biotech journalist Emily Mullin, summer editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.