Shortly after becoming the director of the St. Philip Institute in 2018, I agreed to write the “Science Notes & Abstracts” column for the National Catholic Bioethics Center’s (NCBC) quarterly journal. It was, and still is, an honor to have a voice in the national bioethics conversation. I can’t say that it’s a joyful experience because the field I mostly follow is the use of aborted children in research and the quest to grow humans in the lab. The media is pretty quiet about these scientific endeavors, and I think it is extremely important that the gruesome practices are brought to light. Fundamentally, they are evidence of a lack of human dignity in our culture.
The Spring column I recently wrote dealt with the manipulation of human embryos in the lab. You may have seen the discussion in Catholic media when in March of this year two research groups reported in Nature journal that they turned pluripotent stem cells into human embryo–like structures and grew them to the blastocyst stage in a dish.
Pluripotent stem cells are kind of a blank-slate cell. They multiply, and as genes are activated, they can become different kinds of cells that make up the various organs of the body. This activation process is amazing and not fully understood by scientists. It’s the reason a zygote can become a fully developed baby, although the earliest cells are totipotent (can become an entire organism) whereas pluripotent can only develop into various types of cells. Scientists get these cells from embryos left over from in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatments. Or, by a relatively new Nobel-prize-winning process, they can even genetically reprogram somatic cells, such as skin cells, back to pluripotency, a process called induced pluripotency.
The two research groups used pluripotent cells obtained both ways (from IVF and from induced pluripotency) and found that they could also induce these cells back to an almost totipotent state so that they could then grow new embryo-like structures to the blastocyst stage in a dish. The blastocyst stage is important. In humans, blastocyst formation begins around five days after fertilization, very early. The blastocyst is a ring of cells (called the trophoblast) surrounding a fluid-filled cavity that has an inner cell mass along the side of the ring (called the embryoblast). By day seven in natural pregnancy, the blastocyst begins to implant in the endometrium of the uterine wall where it will continue to grow, the trophoblast becoming the placenta and the embryoblast becoming the body of the baby. It is generally thought that the embryo becomes more stabilized as these critical developmental phases are achieved. That a single-cell zygote becomes an organized, multicellular organism capable of unimaginably complex growth in less than a week, remains a feat that perplexes and amazes molecular biologists.
The only way to study blastocyst development is to grow them from fertilized eggs, but the supply of those depends on donations from IVF participants. Since the embryos this early are intended for pregnancy attempts, the supply is limited. The new artificially grown embryos are considered an important milestone because the ability to grow a blastocyst-like structure in a dish allows scientists to study the very earliest stages of embryogenesis at the molecular level with potentially a much more abundant supply.
Besides the fact that some of the pluripotent stem cells come from the sacrifice of a human embryo, this practice is problematic because it also amounts to cloning. A cell is taken either from an older embryo or an adult’s skin, genetically reprogrammed backwards, and then a new embryo is grown. Although scientists have not yet grown a human clone to viability, it is good for us to be thinking ahead. What do we do if scientists learn to grow the new embryos beyond the blastocyst stage? What do we do if humans among us are someday clones derived in this way?
There’s more. I also wrote about another report published a month later in April. Another group reported the growth of monkey–human chimeras that lived for nineteen days in the lab. Human pluripotent stem cells were injected into monkey embryos. It is significant that these embryos lived for nineteen days because that is about a week longer than human embryos have been grown in the lab.
Both of these newest reports will put greater pressure on the governmental and academic communities to extend something called the “fourteen-day rule”. This is a policy that dates back to 1978 in response to IVF. It was developed by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare’s Ethics Advisory Board. With the ethical controversies that accompanied the introduction of IVF, ethicists wanted to limit the time that embryos can be kept alive in the lab to the blastocyst stage and not beyond it. It was kind of a way for them to say, “Don’t worry! We won’t grow a full human in the lab.” Ethicists thought this limit would deter the growth of a human being with moral status in the laboratory.
But put both of these new reports together. If reprogrammed blastocyst clones can be grown in the lab, and if human-monkey embryos can survive for nineteen days, then we will likely see the fourteen-day rule be extended very soon. There has been pressure to extend it for several years now. And if that happens, scientists will continue to push ahead, and we will be on the way to clones and chimeras becoming a visible reality among us.
I ended my commentary for the NCBC by asking a bunch of hypothetical questions. How will we respond if scientists and politicians decide that lab created humans have a lower moral status? How will we treat human–animal chimeras that are the result of research? Will we willingly avail ourselves of cures and medical knowledge gained from this research — the same way the whole planet just availed itself of vaccines developed using aborted fetal cell lines? Ultimately, if or when we, or our children or grandchildren, find ourselves sharing society with humans or humanoids created in the lab and wanted only for research purposes, it will be up to the people of faith who understand that the human is body and rational soul, made in the image and likeness of God, to show society how to love these people too. It’s easy to say we will love them, but it’s more difficult to imagine how that will actually play out.