by Joshua Green
The concepts of ‘Artificial life’ grown inside a laboratory are practically instilled into the imaginations of us all. Whether we are young or old or whether the stories we construct make us excited for breakthroughs or fearful for the consequences everyone is familiar. It certainly makes for intellectual conversation, both scientifically and ethically, and this conversation has no doubt evolved thanks to recent research completed at Cambridge University. This research took place within the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience research and was led by Professor Magdalena Zernicka-Goetz.
What did they actually do you might be asking? This research was able to successfully produce mice embryos without the use of the usual methods of an egg and sperm. How is this possible? The research team used two different types of genetically modified stem cells from mice. These two types of stem cells, sourced from the mice, were placental and embryonic.
The final part of the research, of which has been called a bioengineering ‘masterpiece’, was the implementation of a 3D ‘scaffold’ for the stem cells to be placed on at each end. This structure was then placed inside a chemical ‘soup’ that replicated the conditions in mice’s wombs. What the research team noticed was that, previously, only using one type of stem cell was proving to be impossible as there was no embryo growth seen. When the researchers used the two different types of stem cell began to ‘talk’ to each other. Using this setup, the team were able to form a living mouse embryo by the moulding of these two types of stem cells.
The ability to grow these mice embryos is an exciting discovery for people within this field of research. This research has attached to it a lot of enthusiasm around the prospect of artificial human embryos being created. In the status quo researchers currently can use a human foetus leftover from IVF treatments. However, there is a 14-day cut off period in where the foetuses must be destroyed after this time. It is hoped that this breakthrough will allow for the growth of almost infinite ‘artificial’ human embryos in where scientists could study the growth of the embryos over time to check for issues that come about during development.
It is easy to generate sensationalism and a good old scare when talking about certain advances in the life sciences. The scientific world is, however, very cautious about this type of research especially due to the concerns surrounding ‘GM babies’ or ‘designer babies’. The ethical ramifications, especially when the research opportunities open up in countries with very little regulation, are very significant. Although the scientific community has praised the important work many experts have come out and have stated they want guarantees and ‘international dialogue’ to occur to make sure that these fears, mostly confined to science fiction, do not become reality.