We Should Resist Making “Synthetic Embryos” Too Realistic
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.
When I greeted Rodney Gorham, age 63, in an online chat session, he replied within seconds: “My pleasure.”
“Are you moving parts of your body as you type?” I asked.
This time, his response came about five minutes later: “I position the cursor with the eye tracking and select the same with moving my ankles.” Gorham, a former sales representative from Melbourne, Australia, living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a rare form of Lou Gehrig’s disease that impairs the brain’s nerve cells and the spinal cord, limiting the ability to move. ALS essentially “locks” a person inside their own body. Gorham is conversing with me by typing with his mind only–no fingers in between his brain and his computer.
The brain-computer interface enabling this feat is called the Stentrode. It's the brainchild of Synchron, a company backed by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates. After Gorham’s neurologist recommended that he try it, he became one of the first volunteers to have an 8mm stent, laced with small electrodes, implanted into his jugular vein and guided by a surgeon into a blood vessel near the part of his brain that controls movement.
After arriving at their destination, these tiny sensors can detect neural activity. They relay these messages through a small receiver implanted under the skin to a computer, which then translates the information into words. This minimally invasive surgery takes a day and is painless, according to Gorham. Recovery time is typically short, about two days.
When a paralyzed patient thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts.
When a paralyzed patient such as Gorham thinks about trying to move their arms or legs, the motor cortex will fire patterns that are specific to the patient’s thoughts. This pattern is detected by the Stentrode and relayed to a computer that learns to associate this pattern with the patient’s physical movements. The computer recognizes thoughts about kicking, making a fist and other movements as signals for clicking a mouse or pushing certain letters on a keyboard. An additional eye-tracking device controls the movement of the computer cursor.
The process works on a letter by letter basis. That’s why longer and more nuanced responses often involve some trial and error. “I have been using this for about two years, and I enjoy the sessions,” Gorham typed during our chat session. Zafar Faraz, field clinical engineer at Synchron, sat next to Gorham, providing help when required. Gorham had suffered without internet access, but now he looks forward to surfing the web and playing video games.
Gorham, age 63, has been enjoying Stentrode sessions for about two years.
The BCI revolution
In the summer of 2021, Synchron became the first company to receive the FDA’s Investigational Device Exemption, which allows research trials on the Stentrode in human patients. This past summer, the company, together with scientists from Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the Neurology and Neurosurgery Department at Utrecht University, published a paper offering a framework for how to develop BCIs for patients with severe paralysis – those who can't use their upper limbs to type or use digital devices.
Three months ago, Synchron announced the enrollment of six patients in a study called COMMAND based in the U.S. The company will seek approval next year from the FDA to make the Stentrode available for sale commercially. Meanwhile, other companies are making progress in the field of BCIs. In August, Neuralink announced a $280 million financing round, the biggest fundraiser yet in the field. Last December, Synchron announced a $75 million financing round. “One thing I can promise you, in five years from now, we’re not going to be where we are today. We're going to be in a very different place,” says Elad I. Levy, professor of neurosurgery and radiology at State University of New York in Buffalo.
The risk of hacking exists, always. Cybercriminals, for example, might steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices while extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“The prospect of bestowing individuals with paralysis a renewed avenue for communication and motor functionality is a step forward in neurotech,” says Hayley Nelson, a neuroscientist and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience. “It is an exciting breakthrough in a world of devastating, scary diseases,” says Neil McArthur, a professor of philosophy and director of the Centre for Professional and Applied Ethics at the University of Manitoba. “To connect with the world when you are trapped inside your body is incredible.”
While the benefits for the paraplegic community are promising, the Stentrode’s long-term effectiveness and overall impact needs more research on safety. “Potential risks like inflammation, damage to neural tissue, or unexpected shifts in synaptic transmission due to the implant warrant thorough exploration,” Nelson says.
There are also concens about data privacy concerns and the policies of companies to safeguard information processed through BCIs. “Often, Big Tech is ahead of the regulators because the latter didn’t envisage such a turn of events...and companies take advantage of the lack of legal framework to push forward,” McArthur says. Hacking is another risk. Cybercriminals could steal sensitive personal data for financial reasons, blackmailing, or to spread malware to other connected devices. Extremist groups could potentially hack BCIs to manipulate individuals into supporting their causes or carrying out actions on their behalf.
“We have to protect patient identity, patient safety and patient integrity,” Levy says. “In the same way that we protect our phones or computers from hackers, we have to stay ahead with anti-hacking software.” Even so, Levy thinks the anticipated benefits for the quadriplegic community outweigh the potential risks. “We are on the precipice of an amazing technology. In the future, we would be able to connect patients to peripheral devices that enhance their quality of life.”
In the near future, the Stentrode could enable patients to use the Stentrode to activate their wheelchairs, iPods or voice modulators. Synchron's focus is on using its BCI to help patients with significant mobility restrictions—not to enhance the lives of healthy people without any illnesses. Levy says we are not prepared for the implications of endowing people with superpowers.
I wondered what Gorham thought about that. “Pardon my question, but do you feel like you have sort of transcended human nature, being the first in a big line of cybernetic people doing marvelous things with their mind only?” was my last question to Gorham.
A slight smile formed on his lips. In less than a minute, he typed: “I do a little.”
A new competition by the XPRIZE Foundation is offering $101 million to researchers who discover therapies that give a boost to people aged 65-80 so their bodies perform more like when they were middle-aged.
For today’s podcast episode, I talked with Dr. Peter Diamandis, XPRIZE’s founder and executive chairman. Under Peter’s leadership, XPRIZE has launched 27 previous competitions with over $300 million in prize purses. The latest contest aims to enhance healthspan, or the period of life when older people can play with their grandkids without any restriction, disability or disease. Such breakthroughs could help prevent chronic diseases that are closely linked to aging. These illnesses are costly to manage and threaten to overwhelm the healthcare system, as the number of Americans over age 65 is rising fast.
In this competition, called XPRIZE Healthspan, multiple awards are available, depending on what’s achieved, with support from the nonprofit Hevolution Foundation and Chip Wilson, the founder of Lululemon and nonprofit SOLVE FSHD. The biggest prize, $81 million, is for improvements in cognition, muscle and immunity by 20 years. An improvement of 15 years will net $71 million, and 10 years will net $61 million.
In our conversation for this episode, Peter talks about his plans for XPRIZE Healthspan and why exponential technologies make the current era - even with all of its challenges - the most exciting time in human history. We discuss the best mental outlook that supports a person in becoming truly innovative, as well as the downsides of too much risk aversion. We talk about how to overcome the negativity bias in ourselves and in mainstream media, how Peter has shifted his own mindset to become more positive over the years, how to inspire a culture of innovation, Peter’s personal recommendations for lifestyle strategies to live longer and healthier, the innovations we can expect in various fields by 2030, the future of education and the importance of democratizing tech and innovation.
In addition to Peter’s pioneering leadership of XPRIZE, he is also the Executive Founder of Singularity University. In 2014, he was named by Fortune as one of the “World’s 50 Greatest Leaders.” As an entrepreneur, he’s started over 25 companies in the areas of health-tech, space, venture capital and education. He’s Co-founder and Vice-Chairman of two public companies, Celularity and Vaxxinity, plus being Co-founder & Chairman of Fountain Life, a fully-integrated platform delivering predictive, preventative, personalized and data-driven health. He also serves as Co-founder of BOLD Capital Partners, a venture fund with a half-billion dollars under management being invested in exponential technologies and longevity companies. Peter is a New York Times Bestselling author of four books, noted during our conversation and in the show notes of this episode. He has degrees in molecular genetics and aerospace engineering from MIT and holds an M.D. from Harvard Medical School.
- Peter Diamandis bio
- New XPRIZE Healthspan
- Peter Diamandis books
- Longevity Insider newsletter – AI identifies the news
- Peter Diamandis Longevity Handbook
- Hevolution funding for longevity
XPRIZE Founder Peter Diamandis speaks with Mehmoud Khan, CEO of Hevolution Foundation, at the launch of XPRIZE Healthspan.