As a subject of research, an unusual degree of consensus appears to exist among scientists, politicians and the public about human embryos being deserving of special considerations. But what those special considerations should be is less clear. And this is where the subject becomes contentious and opinions diverge because, somewhat surprisingly, what really represents a human embryo has so far not been resolved.
"Prior to implantation, embryos must be given a different level of reverence than after implantation."
In 2002, Howard W. Jones Jr., widely considered the "father" of in vitro fertilization (IVF) in the U.S., argued in a widely acclaimed article titled "What is an embryo?" that a precondition for the definition of a human embryo was successful implantation. Only once implantation established a biological unit between embryo and mother, could a relatively small number of human cells be considered a human embryo.
Because he felt strongly that human embryos, indeed, deserve special considerations, and should receive those during IVF, he pointed out that, even inside a woman's body, most human embryos (in contrast to other species) never implant and, therefore, are never given a chance at human life. Consequently, he reasoned that prior to implantation, embryos must be given a different level of reverence than after implantation.
"One cannot help but wonder about the fog of misconceptions and misrepresentations that still surrounds what an embryo is."
This difference, he felt, should also be reflected in scientific language, proposing that embryos prior to implantation in daily IVF practice be called "pre-embryos," with the term "embryo" reserved for post-implantation-stage embryos. Then still unknown to Jones, recent research findings support this viewpoint, since genetic profiles of pre- and post-implantation stage embryos greatly differ.
In an analogy to nature, which in humans allows implantation of only a small minority of naturally generated pre-embryos, IVF centers around the world routinely discard large numbers of pre-embryos, judged inadequate for producing normal pregnancies. Jones' suggestion that only post-implantation embryos should be considered embryos deserving of special considerations, therefore, not only appears prescient and considerate of current IVF practices, but grounded in scientific reality. One, therefore, cannot help but wonder about the fog of misconceptions and misrepresentations that still surrounds what an embryo is.
"Much of the regulatory environment surrounding research on human embryos is guided by emotions rather than science and logical thinking."
In 1984, a British ethics committee issued the Warnock Report, which still today prohibits scientists worldwide from studying human embryos in a lab beyond 14 days from fertilization or past formation of the so-called primitive streak, whichever comes first. Well-meaning in its day, its intent was to apply special considerations to human pre-embryos by protecting them from the potential of "feeling pain," once the primitive streak arose on day-15 of development. Formation of the primitive streak signifies a process known as gastrulation, when a subset of cells from the inner cell mass of the pre-embryo are transformed into the three germ layers that comprise all tissues of the developing embryo: The ectoderm, which gives rise to the nervous system; the mesoderm, which gives rise to the circulatory system, muscle, and kidneys; and the endoderm which gives rise to the interior lining of the digestive and respiratory tracts, among other tissues.
That pre-embryos may feel pain at that stage of development was far-fetched in 1984; in view of what we have learned about early human embryology in the 33 years since, it remains untenable today. And, yet, scientists all over the world remain bound by the ethical constraints imposed by the Warnock Report.
A similar ethical paradox exists today for guidelines affecting huge numbers of so-called "abandoned" cryopreserved embryos, often stored ad infinitum in IVF centers all over the world. These are pre-embryos, whose "parents" are no longer responsive to queries from their IVF centers. Current U.S. guidelines allow the disposal of such pre-embryos but prohibit their use in research that may benefit mankind. One, however, wonders whether disposal of huge numbers of abandoned embryos is really more ethical than their use in potentially life-saving human research?
That much of the regulatory environment surrounding research on human embryos is, indeed, guided by emotions rather than science and logical thinking, is also demonstrated by recently expressed concern about so-called "artificial" or "synthetic" embryos. Though both of these terms suggest impending ability to create human embryos from synthetic building blocks, this is not what these terms are meant to describe (such abilities also are not on the horizon). They also do not describe abilities to create gametes (i.e., eggs and sperm) from somatic cells by reprogramming adult peripheral cells, which has already been successfully done in mice by Japanese investigators, leading to the creation of healthy embryos and births and three generations of healthy pubs. Such an approach is at least conceivable as an upcoming infertility treatment.
"A team of biologists and engineers at the University of Michigan recently received media attention after creating organoids from embryonic stem cells that resembled human embryos."
What all of this noise is really about is the discovery that, as several Rockefeller University investigators recently noted, "Cells have an intrinsic ability to self-assemble and self-organize into complex and functional tissues and organs." Investigators have taken advantage of this ability by creating in the lab so-called "organoids" from accumulations of individual embryonic stem cells. They are defined by three characteristics: (i) they contain a variety of cell types and tissue layers, all typical for a given organ; (ii) these cells are organized similarly to their organization in a specific organ; and (iii) the organoid mimics functions of the organ.
Several other biologists from the Cincinnati Children Hospital Medical Center recently noted that in the last five years, quite a variety of human stem cell-derived organoids, including all three germ layers, have been generated by different research groups around the world, thereby establishing new human model systems that can be used outside the body, in a dish, to investigate otherwise difficult-to-approach organs. Interestingly, they can also be used to investigate early stages of human embryological development.
A team of biologists and engineers at the University of Michigan recently received media attention after creating organoids from embryonic stem cells that resembled human embryos and, therefore, were given the name "embroids." Though clearly not embryos (the only thing they had in common with human embryos were cell types), they were nevertheless awarded in at least one article the identity of "artificial embryos," which "no one knows how to handle." As Howard Jones so correctly noted, with the word embryo often comes undeserved reverence.
"Any association with the term "embryo" should be avoided; it is not only misleading and irresponsible but scientifically incorrect."
Artificial embryos, therefore, do not exist. Organoids that resemble embryos (i.e., "embroids"), while potentially very useful research objects in studies of early human embryonic cell organization and lineage development, are not embryos--not even pre-embryos. Special considerations for "artificial" or "synthetic" embryos, as recently advocated by some scientists, therefore, appear ethically undeserved. How misdirected and forced some of these efforts are is probably best demonstrated by a recent publication in which a group of Harvard University investigators proposed the term "synthetic human entities with embryo-like features" or SHEEFS" in place of "organoids." Preferably, however, in describing these laboratory-created entities, any association with the term "embryo" should be avoided. It is not only misleading and irresponsible but scientifically incorrect.
Clinical reproductive medicine and reproductive biology, for valid ethical reasons, but also because of myths, misperceptions and, sometimes, outright misrepresentations of facts for political reasons, are under more public scrutiny than most other science areas. Yet, at least in the realm of biomedical research, nothing appears more important than better understanding the first few days of human embryo development. A recent study involving genetic editing of human embryos, reported by British investigators in Nature, once again confirmed what biologist have known for some time: No animal model faithfully recapitulates most of human developmental origins. The most important secrets nature still has to tell us, will not be revealed through mouse or other animal studies. We will discover them only through the study of early-stage human embryos – and we, therefore, should not limit the use of lab-grown organoids to help further that research.
Understanding early human development "will not only greatly enhance the biological understanding of our species; but also will open groundbreaking new therapeutic options in all areas of medicine."
As Howard Jones intuitively noticed, words matter. Appropriate and uniformly accepted definitions and terms are not only essential for scientific communications but, within the context of human reproduction, often elicit strong emotional reactions, and are easily misappropriated by those opposed to most interventions into human reproduction.
Who does not recall the early days of IVF in the late 1970s, when even reputable news outlets raised the specter of Frankenstein monsters created through the IVF process? Millions of IVF births later, a Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology was in 2010 finally awarded to the biologist Robert Edwards who, together with the gynecologist Patrick Steptoe, reported the first live birth through IVF on July 25, 1978. Many more awards are still waiting for recipients who through the study of early human embryo development will discover how cell fate is determined and cells acquire highly specific functions; how rapid cell proliferation takes place and, when required, stops; why chromosomal abnormalities are so common in early stage embryos and what their function may be.
Those who will discover these and many other important answers, will not only greatly enhance the biological understanding of our species; but also will open groundbreaking new therapeutic options in all areas of medicine. Learning how to control cell proliferation, for example, will likely revolutionize cancer therapy; I started my research career in biology with a study published in 1980 of "common denominators of pregnancy and malignancy." If regulatory prohibitions are not allowed to interfere in rapidly progressing research opportunities involving organoids and pre-embryos, we will, finally, see the circle closing, with the most rewarding benefits for mankind ever achieved through biological research.
Editor's Note: Read a different viewpoint here written by one of the world's top experts on the ethics of stem cell research.
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.”
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:
- How to improve your working memory
- A plain old solution to stress
- Progress on a deadly cancer for first time since 1995*
- Rise of the robot surgeon
- Tomato brain power
And in an honorable mention this week, new research on the gut connection to better brain health after strokes.
* The methodology for this study has come under scrutiny here.